What makes you happy? Off the top of my head, in no particular order: London Zoo, New Zealand wines, Tom Hardy’s face. When my friends seem happy. Getting a nice email from my boss. Tate Britain. The day’s first coffee. Cheese. Cats.
I’m being flippant. A therapist would probably tell me off. Do those things really make me happy? Fleetingly, maybe, as a character in The Happiness Project finds out when the smell of a delicious bacon sandwich wafts up his nose.
But is what I’m feeling really happiness? How on earth do I achieve the long-term version? How can we define or measure it? Should we even be trying to define or measure it?
Does it even exist? Is this elusive emotion, as The Happiness Project at Camden’s Roundhouse suggests at one point, simply “bullshit”?
While I’m not entirely sure this piece of innovative and contemporary theatre actually answers the questions it poses, it was still rather fascinating to watch the process of asking the questions.
This immersive show, which first appeared to great reviews at Edinburgh Fringe before transferring to a sold-out run at the Roundhouse, isn’t quite theatre as I’ve come to know it so proves very hard to ‘review’ in the traditional sense.
What we’ve got in front of us is the result of an experiment to find out what happens when you put a half dozen London-based psychologists and neuroscientists in a room with a group of under-19s.
None are trained actors. All have a huge amount to learn from each other.
A lot of my generation – let’s define us as those born roughly between 1980 and 1990 – might struggle to understand what teenagers today really have to worry about.
What I took away from The Happiness Project is that being a teenager today is horrendous as you’ve got the eyes of the world on you via social media. You’re scrutinised from every angle by your friends, family, and countless strangers.
The newspapers think you’re a disgrace, but when you get straight As it’s ‘the system’ dumbing down. The government’s cut your safety net, and there’s little evidence to show that working hard will even pay off. You’re still going to get the student loan debt, the rubbish flat, the terrible pay cheque. If you’re lucky.
The Happiness Project’s plot starts with 14-year-old Eden Gray as she tries to understand the words of her mother: do whatever you want with your life, as long as you’re happy.
Her fellow young performers take a stab at explaining the h-word from their perspective, when in step our eminent scientists acting the part of ‘those that know best’.
A humorous scene where they prod, poke and measure our young victims in a bid to inflict some rigorous scientific discipline into the pursuit of happiness ensues – perhaps unintentionally indicative of our schools’ obsessive testing culture.
The character arcs of some of the academics are great, clearly designed to show that just because you’re a bit older and have a few more letters after your name, it doesn’t mean you can’t be changed by an experience.
Just because you’ve lived a little, it doesn’t always mean you know best when it comes to young people’s heads and hearts.
I particularly enjoyed Dawn Rose’s transformation from prim and proper school ma’am type to free-spirited rocker as she bonds with one of the teenagers over a brilliant double-drum solo.
If you could bottle both their grins, ‘happiness’ would be a fitting label.
Rose, unbeknown to many of the audience members I’m sure, drummed with a number of post-punk, new wave and feminist rock bands and taught the instrument for two decades before turning her hand to a neuropsychology PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Perhaps that’s the key to happiness? Keep changing, surprise yourself, don’t be afraid of new challenges.
UCL Human Geographer Dr Jason Lim and 17-year-old Zayn made an impressive double-act as Zayn successfully tries to instil his passion for Marvel heroes on the doubtful Lim. Sticking with the comic book theme, the University of Manchester’s Prof John Bamford seemed like a natural on stage, kind, wise, and strangely reminiscent every now and again of Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xaviar.
Two other scenes proved particularly poignant – one of the older teenager’s heartfelt rants about the unfairness of cuts to benefits, university debt and obscene London rents forcing her out of a place she’s known her whole life; and the moment 16-year old Buket finally lets her ‘cool girl’ façade fall.
With fab hair, trendy clothes and the most upbeat of attitudes, Buket’s character describes herself over and over as a perfect 10. But it turns out, she’s just as scared of failure – of not being perfect – as the rest of us.
The wonderfully confident, smart and eloquent Buket, who’s aiming for a career in psychology, joined us after the show for a panel discussion on the performance and the wider theme of how science and the arts can and should work together.
It highlighted the scandal of forcing kids to choose between the sciences and the arts at a young age. Dr Jamie Upton, a cell-biologist, science communicator and cocktail-maker extraordinaire who helps bring artists into labs, summed up the problem nicely:
“Leonardo Da Vinci wasn’t like, ‘art’? Bugger off. I’m just going to invent the helicopter.”
Da Vinci did both, you see. You need both science and art to understand the world. When you do both, brilliant, entertaining and often life-changing things happen, because it’s passion that counts here.
Whether you’ve got a passion for the arts or for science, passion is infectious and influential. The Happiness Project is part of The Roundhouse’s much wider, critical, work in getting young people into performance.
It’s weird, messy, the music obscures the dialogue a bit in places, but it’s got bucketloads of passion and a young cast of wonderfully smart, exploring minds, who seem like they could turn those minds to whatever it is they want to do in the future.
It gives you an enormous amount of confidence in the next generation. That’s what made it so enjoyable to watch.
The Happiness Project
The Happiness Project, a sold-out piece of innovative contemporary theatre at London’s Roundhouse, is weird & messy but it’s got bucketloads of passion & a young cast of wonderfully smart, exploring minds.