Collectors of West End crash-and-burns should make a beeline to “We Happy Few” and the Gielgud Theater, where some distinguished theater folk have joined forces to concoct the most preposterously bad (supposedly) serious new British play in many a season. Imogen Stubbs is a capable actress, currently on view as Gertrude in the Old Vic “Hamlet,” and an adroit contributor to the Daily Telegraph, among other publications. But on the evidence of her debut effort as dramatist, her tin ear for language, structure and plausibility is surpassed only by a painfully languorous production from her husband, director Trevor Nunn. While Nunn may have thought he was doing his spousal duty by attending to this play’s West End birth, the net result of “We Happy Few” will be to send audiences fleeing from the theater, the art form that Stubbs’ ceaselessly self-regarding script spends three long hours exalting to the skies.
Indeed, the play will be least tolerated by those who love theater the most, since one can only imagine the fine work a different team might have made of what remains a dandy idea. (The story also would make a first-rate film.)
It so happens that seven women of all ages and backgrounds spent much of World War II touring village halls and pubs around Britain in a silver 1923 Rolls Royce, delivering drama to the masses in an effort to boost public morale. If Stubbs’ account is accurate, they ended up giving 1,000 performances of 35 plays, Shakespeare mostly, but Sophocles and “Snow White,” too, concluding with “Henry V” on VE Day.
From these events, Stubbs has fashioned an itinerant troupe here known as the Artemis Players (in real life, they were the Osiris troupe) who were committed, we’re told, to “those moments of inspiration when language is lit up by life, or life by language.”
But it’s just one of the numerous, eventually suffocating ironies of the evening that such lightning effects prove almost wholly absent from the show itself. While one applauds Stubbs’ desire to honor a particularly English — and, in this case, distaff English — indomitability, alongside the very love of the stage that has productively fueled both her career and Nunn’s, “We Happy Few” comes off as the work of people who would seem rarely to have seen a play, so rudimentary is its sense of plot, pacing and tone.
For one thing, what are we to make of the theatrical snippets that take up huge chunks of the play? (Among them, an extended sequence from “Macbeth” that will satisfy those who have always wanted to see a bearded Juliet Stevenson play the murderous general.) Presumably, we’re meant to be impressed by the women’s versatility: Asked to play the Seven Dwarves one minute (that sequence is especially unfortunate), they must turn to “The Tempest” or “Henry V” the next. The latter is shamelessly milked for its textual affinity to a plot contrivance one can see coming a mile away: An offstage character pressed into combat isn’t called Crispian for nothing.
But Stubbs wants to have it both ways. We’re meant to be impressed by the nobility of this ad hoc assemblage of thesps — playing the group leader, Stevenson is all chin-out resolve — even as, more often than not, their endeavors are played for laughs.
It’s astonishing that Nunn could sanction an audition scene that plays Shakespeare nomenclature for grossly cheap laughs. (The scene is like an English-accented outtake from “I Love Lucy.”)
Then again, one wonders how the director of definitive stagings of “Macbeth” and “The Merchant of Venice” could allow these plays to prompt vulgar jokes, among which a non-Shakespearean “lesbian/thespian” laugh line merely leaves you rolling your eyes. Elsewhere, there’s hefty comic business at the expense of smoke machines that comes as a bit rich from someone whose musicals have not exactly been lacking in comparable effects.
The first act begins as some sort of reductive version of “Follies,” with several of the women years later gathering on John Napier’s murky set to take a flashlight to the theatrical storeroom that allows the memories to come flooding back.
But that’s preferable to a scenario embracing so much melodrama (the second act is a nonstop catalog of woe) that “We Happy Few” would have been dismissed as ridiculous even at the time during which it is set. And for a script that goes on and on about appealing to our “imaginary forces,” the literal-mindedness of the evening has begun to pall well before the ladies’ accompanying dog is reported dead. Cue tears from the ever canine-friendly British public.
It’s always gratifying to find a play so rich in women’s roles, and one wishes all the actresses better luck next time around. Though Stevenson gets the ripest slabs of sentimentality (no one should have to encapsulate the entire Holocaust in a line or two), Olivier winner Marcia Warren (“Humble Boy”) must wade through an unrewarding speech reaffirming her belief in God. “Dynasty” star Kate O’Mara is on hand playing — what else? — the resident bitch (Guess who’s cast as Lady Macbeth?) and mother to the sweet-natured RADA graduate Rosalind (Emma Darwall-Smith), who just may be gay.
But why go on? They’re all types and mouthpieces and receptacles for one quotation or another. Or to cite Stevenson’s Hetty at her most exasperated: “I’m past caring.”