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Walking to The Rep theatre in Birmingham, the striking city centre architecture shimmering in the evening sunshine stood in stark contrast to the minimalist post-apocalyptic staging of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days featuring Siobhán McSweeney and Howard Teale.

Siobhán McSweeneyThe desert scene sparkled under harsh lighting against a dazzling blue sky.  The auditorium was completely silent as Winnie slumbered, submerged waist-high in sand until a bell chimed and she woke to face the audience. Looking resplendent in a plain 1950s black swimsuit she then proceeded to begin her daily routine in her strange new world – in contrast to “the old days”, the beginning of yet another “happy day”.

Surrounded by her minimal possessions – a battered old bag, her toothbrush, her parasol, and inexplicably, her revolver – she remains buried in a mound of sand, a symbol of blind optimism constantly battling the tides of existential despair. What would seem unbearable to us, her imprisonment is for her a “great mercy”. This disconnect between her positivity and her actual reality is the source of the play’s humour as well as its horror, reflecting the double-edged atmosphere of optimism and despair.

In an almost entirely static play that demands everything from its central actor, Siobhán’s ability to switch seamlessly from humour to pathos gives this production its drama. Winnie seems to contain many internal voices as she quotes snatches of poetry and passages from the Bible; or rehearses long-ago conversations and throws out questions to the laconic Willie (her husband, played by Howard Teale, who brings music hall physical comedy to a virtually faceless part). Their relationship plays out, not in sad disconnections and silences but as gentle eyeball-rolling marital comedy edged with shades of domestic resentment. Willie is a strangely cryptic figure, a pantomime foil, largely there for Winnie to talk at.

The first half stays resolutely playful in tone and is entertaining, and little threat is felt over the mysterious force that is keeping Winnie trapped within the sand. The second half sees her not only buried neck deep, but ashen, ravaged and looking close to death. The pitch and pace of Siobhán’s voice changes radically, too. Her voice cracks under the relentless bright sunshine and she constantly falls asleep or loses consciousness only to be thrust reluctantly back by the clanging bell.This is a challenging, brutal and occasionally confusing play, but Siobhán McSweeney is genius casting. She gives a striking virtuoso performance, and it is obvious you are witnessing an actor at their absolute prime. A flawless masterclass in how to enthral, entertain and hold an audience with limited dialogue and mere vocal inflections and facial expressions.

Happy Days is at the Rep Birmingham until Saturday July 1. For more information and tickets, click here.