Review: Smile Like You're Happy (TheSpace Triplex)
Updated: Jun 1, 2022
When it comes to discussions around social media, theatre tends to lag behind other forms of entertainment. There are exceptions, such as Claire Gaydon’s See-Through, but it isn’t that surprising that the experiences of small screens do not always translate well to a large stage. Smile Like You’re Happy, as the name implies, takes a cynical look at social media and how it has evolved to bolster egos and hide flaws. Written by Blue McElroy and directed by Grace Baker, we meet Kate (Robyn Reilly), a young woman who is unhappy when her partner Patrick (John Whyte) posts a picture of them online which receives unpleasant comments. The solution? Start making lifestyle videos and become an influencer!
If you are struggling to see the connection, so are the rest of the audience. In most (now clichéd) stories of social media, creating content and trying to build a following is portrayed as an addiction – the likes and follows and notifications triggers dopamine which keeps us all coming back for more. This narrative has been done to death, but it does at least correspond with most experiences. In McElroy’s play, there is no point at which Kate wants to become an influencer. Instead, she is pressured into creating an account by her friend (Jess Ferrier) and her partner Patrick, who ropes in his filmmaking brother Grem (Lex Joyce) to help grow her account.
The concept that everyday people are peer pressured into becoming influencers is implausible. When we’re told the answer to social media being toxic is to…join social media, the stakes are so low it is impossible to become invested. Why should we want her to become famous when we don’t understand why? Why are there so many characters invested in an account with negligible followers in the first place? The most popular dream job among children and teenagers, by some margin, is to be a YouTuber. The journey of such a reluctant main character, in a world where hundreds of thousands of people try and fail to achieve a shred of fame, is something I doubt any audience will buy as a narrative.
The posse that accompanies her through all of this is strange; not only because it exists in the first place but because we aren’t told what their relationships are to each other for over a third of the play. It is not confirmed that Kate and Patrick are a couple for some time. It is not explained that Grem is Patrick’s brother until a significant way into the performance. And to make things ten times more confusing it transpires that Ferrier’s character is not, in fact, Kate’s friend, but some imagined version of Kate that is completely at odds with the character Reilly portrays. It feels like both the cast and characters are being forced together against their will.
Some of the blame for this confusion is a result of the writing, but more so for the directing and acting. Across the board their performances suggest they have not broken down enough barriers between them to be comfortable being flirtatious or aggressive or upset with each other in their roles. As a result, their performances are stiff. Baker’s direction does nothing to help communicate their relationships to each other either. The staging is bland, and there are moments where it becomes obvious that actors have been left with too little guidance to know what to do with themselves, e.g. when Reilly is forced to adjust the height of her ring light over and over just to give the illusion of being busy.
In the director’s note, Baker informs us she wanted this “controversial conversation” to be “handled with care”, but Smile Like You’re Happy is as far from controversial. Very little is risked when the depth of discussion never moves beyond “social media is bad” and “social media is fake”, particularly when Kate’s rise to stardom bears no relation to how becoming an influencer is widely understood to work. Besides that, the performances are awkward and clunky, and the script is frequently eye-rolling. In a time when we have such entertainment as Ingrid Goes West and Bo Burnham’s Inside, Smile Like You’re Happy proves theatre about social media still has a long way to go. One star.
Whispers from the crowd:
It felt very contrived. None of it felt natural. We were so distanced we wondered why we should be interested.