Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" isn't the first CD one expects to hear emanating from a pub kitchen in the north of England. Then again, Simon Burt's "Got to Be Happy" isn't your conventional kitchen-sink drama, even if a kitchen sink does prove crucial to the detailed realism of Lisa Lillywhite's set.

Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” isn’t the first CD one expects to hear emanating from a pub kitchen in the north of England, an ambience where language tends toward the brusque and salty and lamentations generally are reserved for overcooked food. Then again, Simon Burt’s “Got to Be Happy” isn’t your conventional kitchen-sink drama, even if a kitchen sink does prove crucial to the detailed realism of Lisa Lillywhite’s set. What could the riven heroine Dido possibly have to do with the two pairs of lovers — one younger and looking toward the future, the other older and stewing over their past — whom Burt sends on their variously tragicomic ways? “Silly queen,” someone remarks of Dido in a throwaway comment he will later regret, when he discovers what it is to die of a broken heart.

Operatic heroines scarcely own the patent on exalted passion, and dramatist Burt’s real achievement is to invest the alternately snarky and cautious exchanges among his quartet of restaurateurs with a heightened sense of passions simmering at a temperature all their own.

If one ultimately feels that a shortish play still is considerably too long for the tale Burt has to tell, you can’t fault this young writer — 28, and on just his second play — for underselling his characters. Even when the writing turns soggy and leaden in the second act, Burt’s respect for the vagaries of romance holds firm. In a London climate defined in part by tawdry tearjerkers like “Tell Me on a Sunday,” “Got to Be Happy” at least comes honestly by the moistened eyes that prevail at the final curtain.

The unabashed sentiment of the writing is scarcely a given at the start. Indeed, although the play will go on to probe amorous prospects to come alongside post mortems on one particular relationship that was, the abiding “affair,” so to speak, seems to be the one these employees have with their workplace. Richard (Martin Hancock) is the large-eyed, twentysomething Yorkshireman with dreams of owning his own eatery, while Charley (Paul Copley) is the wizened veteran of 40 years spent among packets of British “caff” brown sauce. But it isn’t long before the verbal cross-fire about baguettes gives way to affairs of the heart, not the stomach.

Charley is shaken by the arrival of new kitchen recruit Connie (Polly Hemingway), the soft-spoken woman who long ago was his great love. Martin, in the meantime, is utterly besotted with 21-year-old Caroline (Lisa Ellis), the waitress whom he started dating when she was under-age. And though his nights are spent boozing it up at the local pool hall, more sober moments hint at what must eventually come to pass — namely, the gradual erosion of a relationship due to outside circumstances. Caroline, we learn, is preparing to go to university, which means access to an intellectual and social life in which Richard, for all the seriousness of his passion, can never share.

Burt might have been better off with a 90-minute one-act as opposed to a somewhat distended drama that ends up, rather improbably, being led by its snatches of Purcell in order to up the stakes. (If this were a commercial venture, the theater concession stand would offer a souvenir CD.) And having skilfully laid the groundwork, the dramatist leaves his characters going in circles, the splintered nature of the later scenes indicative of a narrative confusion that isn’t evident earlier on.

Still, the ready naturalism favored by the Bush more than carries the day at an address where you almost always feel as if you are at the pub or in the living room, eavesdropping on events at hand. One look at the creased expressions on Copley’s face reveals just as much as the slow-aborning revelations offered by the text. Similarly, Hemingway’s shy presence as the newcomer to the group fills in a complete history well before we get the vaguely melodramatic account of what actually came to pass.

Even better are the younger actors, both of whom are new to me. Possessed of a radiance that pours forth from eyes bearing a Renee Zellweger-style squint, Ellis conveys the inevitably mixed emotions that come with wanting to better herself at the price of the partnership that has defined her young adulthood. And playing the mama’s boy with a fierce mouth and magnificently yearning eyes, Hancock’s Richard truly does break your heart as he steels himself to be one of life’s discards: “It’s all about you, all of me is all about you. I tired of it … You making me hate me’self.” Not long after, Richard bids farewell, having made the most exalted gesture of all: Sometimes, showing one’s love also means letting go.

Got to Be Happy

Bush Theater, London 100 seats; £13.50 ($21.50) top

Production

A Bush Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Simon Burt. Directed by Owen Lewis.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Lisa Lillywhite; lighting, Tanya Burns. Opened April 4, 2003; reviewed April 21. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Charley - Paul Copley Richard - Martin Hancock Connie - Polly Hemingway Caroline - Lisa Ellis
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