Happy Meal review – romance blooms online and IRL

The Guardian - Sat Aug 6 10:00

Is it coincidence that the increasing acceptance of gender fluidity and trans visibility has happened at the same time as the first generation of online natives has come of age? Just a theory, but Tabby Lamb’s delightful two-hander provides good supporting evidence.

Bright and witty, Happy Meal is a slow-burning romance that charts the digital relationship of two young people who regard each other as best friends long before they meet IRL. Lamb astutely observes how, behind a computer screen, they can be as nerdy, open and gauche as they choose to be. They can also present themselves with whatever gender identity feels right. A fresh image is only an avatar away.

Outwardly confident and inwardly conflicted, Sam Crerar’s Alec and Allie Daniel’s Bette conduct their friendship via a string of age-appropriate platforms as they grow up. In Jamie Fletcher’s feelgood production for Roots and Theatre Royal Plymouth, they graduate from Club Penguin to MySpace, Neopets, Facebook and Skype, their language shifting to match the relative formality of each.

Daniel Denton’s playful video projections on Ben Stones’s two-screen set cleverly mirror the design of each medium. The fidgety icons of one mature into the sober blues of another, adding to the retro fun.

If Bette eclipses Alec in her mastery of Club Penguin (her online tokens falling as confetti) and if her taste in frothy pop trumps his fondness for emo bands, there comes a point when Alec gets the upper hand because of his gender certainty. Bette is a whizz at computer code, but when it comes to inhabiting the real world, which seems judgmental and harsh, she needs to find new levels of confidence.

Lamb is never far from a sparky one-liner, but takes the play from its breezy beginnings in pop culture into serious territory about transitioning, be that the difficulty in finding acceptance or the resourcefulness needed to research medical procedures. The playwright does not labour the point, but 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.