A smart and sassy play about trans-for-trans love, Happy Meal follows the relationship of Alec (Sam Crerar) and Bette (Allie Daniel) as their online engagements blossom into ILR love while they navigate their separate transitions. There is a lot to like about this funny, uplifting story: the recent cinematic vogue for 1980s and 90s nostalgia is replaced here with a celebration of millennial culture: this is the world of My Space and emo music, a backdrop whose popularity with the audience is underscored by the latter’s cheering of the reciting of names of twenty-first-century bands, while laughter also comes at the constant stream of familiar references to the online forums of the same era. The performances of Crerar and Daniel are also excellent; I particularly connected with Daniel as the figure wrestling with coming out to Alec, juggling desire with a secret. In perhaps the play’s most heart-breaking scene, a planned first IRL meeting at a music festival, the progress of their relationship suddenly hits the wall prompted by Bette’s prior failure to reveal her transness. As Alec’s texting and calls become more desperate downstage as he searches for her, Bette remains in her online booth, watching with increasing sadness, unable to summon the courage to reveal herself, a Cyrano de Bergerac moment.
This beautifully crafted scene underscores the technical accomplishments of the play as a whole. The presence of neon-lit booths from which the two characters primarily correspond with each other is inspired, as are the projected texts and signs of missed calls; this is a technically challenging play made to look simple. Writer Tabby Lamb’s reputation as a new major talent in British theatre can only grow from this production too, as demonstrated by the play’s sophisticated and easily followable pinging back and forth between IRL and online worlds, as well as Lamb’s flair for integrating zeitgeisty cultural references. Finally, there is Daniel’s performance, which compares favourably with anything I’ve seen in this new, exciting era of trans theatre.
Overall, the legacy media’s pattern of four- and five-star reviews reflect accurately the play’s quality while also highlighting the serious quality that exists within trans arts these days. As an aside, the reviews also reveal the weird disconnect between the transphobia that dominates the editorial line of the UK legacy media on the one hand, and its coverage of the arts on the other, which tends to be more sympathetic. Via this uneven division, we see a broken mirror effect in which the larger, more dominant shard reflects back to us irrational suspicions and knee-jerk anti-trans hostility, while a smaller shard reflects back at us a humane celebration of trans existence. The Guardian’s four-star review is a case in point: a newspaper that has been increasingly fuelling hatred and suspicion against trans people since at least 2018 as typified by its pieces from leader writer Sonia Sodha – in which conversion therapy against trans people is argued for and trans women are only ever named with such delegitimizing terms as ‘men who identify as women’ – in contrast to this positive theatre review by Mark Fisher, which in turn reveals a jarring lack of self-awareness towards his own paper. To quote Fisher’s final words:
'Happy Meal is not just a sweet romance. Rooted in truth, it is also a big-hearted plea for tolerance. Archbishop Justin Welby would do well to watch it.'
This centrist-liberal framing by Fisher, with its low-hanging-fruit attack on religion, is almost laughable given the Guardian/Observer’s recent alignment with the right-wing media and the delegitimizing campaigns against Stonewall and trans people’s rights. Replace ‘Archbishop Justin Welby’ with ‘Guardian-Editor-in-Chief Katharine Viner’ and Fisher’s nauseating eruption of virtue-signalling might actually have looked more like the product of a credible integrity. Shows like Happy Meal exist and succeed in spite of – rather than due to – media outlets like the Guardian, who have caused far more damage and distress to the trans community than any religious movement in the UK at the moment. With this reality, I salute Tabby Lamb and the production of Happy Meal for the witty and wonderful celebration of trans lives in this time of culture war attacks by Fisher's publication.