REVIEW: The World of Extreme Happiness, National Theatre


Explicit ‘fucks’ in an angry debate (whether it is better to have one girl or many) open the 2.5 hour play. Descriptions of graphic dreams set the tone for traumatic cynicism.

A girl is dumped in a slop bucket for being the wrong sex in rural China. But she is rescued, gruffly and inexplicably, by her father who cares more about his pigeons than the mother of his child. As he coos over real live pigeons on stage, the baby is fake – a toy doll. She is named Sunny.

The cute press picture and lack of adult warnings make the explicitness unexpected. The first half ends with a sexual act that leaves the audience reeling, amidst the numerous bloody and/or uncomfortable images continually presented to the audience. The act of cruel revenge by Sunny on her family, when she returns, and her bid for freedom over her own destiny in rejecting the choice to be a wife in the country, involves cruelty to animals. Are the uncomfortable scenes an act of revenge against the oppressiveness of the State, or at us – the Western audience? After all, animals are sometimes treated better than human beings, in the West.

Sunny, played by Katie Leung (from Harry Potter films), with a feisty nature, struggles to empower herself despite the traps of city life. Her journey coincides with the story of businesspeople set to make a documentary on how the factory affords workers a better life, where they journey to the city away from adversity. It is predictable she will be offered the opportunity to speak.

The stories we tell ourselves can be re-written…

…The loud American-style self-help inspirational speaker ‘Mr Destiny’ shouts to disco lights and music. Sunny doesn’t have to believe she was dumped in a slop bucket for being unworthy – she was held and cherished; she is special. The Shed is lined with toy dolls packaged in pink, a familiar sight of toys made in China, and they reflect the innocence of the stories we tell ourselves, and our children, about where they come from.  In contrast, the end of the first half shows Sunny as she resorts, desperately, to a sexual act. It is doubtful, perhaps, why or how a young girl would think to do such a thing, but nevertheless it is pointedly ironic that the stylised self-help clichés of success do not, in the end, win the day, as much as simple prostitution. The dolls glow and become sinister as the story grows darker.

The police, who capture the businessman’s wife, have the line that not everyone is for sale. Some people have values. But the women in the play, from rich wife to peasant girl, can’t afford values if they wish to survive.

The story of MingMing, the friend who introduces Sunny to self-help, is potentially more interesting. She develops from ambitious businesswoman to self-destructive, lost soul (with suitably graphic images). Her disappointment crushes her when she realises real life does not, and can’t possibly, live up to the fantastic expectations we imagine for ourselves in glamorous disco lights and over the top clichés of success. Mr Destiny doesn’t live in a mansion; his mantras do not translate into real images of success. Self-help is a false pretence, a story we tell ourselves.

Sunny’s journey from slop-bucket to stage to the State’s treatment is cynical, and it seems the play preaches the moral that it is better for an individual not to challenge the status quo. It really is better to be cynical, as the promoted quote says:

“There are only two roads to walk down. You can see the truth – and always be in pain. Or we can look away and be rich. And safe. And happy.”

In the dramatic climax, Sunny is given the chance to deliver a speech in the House of the People to proclaim the PR message about the factory changing her life for the better. We have seen the PR is false, and she chooses to tell the truth instead. Her speech resonates with powerful words about the disparity of rights between City people and country people within China, where the city thinks they can burn through peasants but the peasants do, in fact, have the chance to protest.

There are broader implications from the perspective of any Third World sweatshop worker producing goods for the Western world. The workers have no options, trapped at every turn; to survive, or to thrive and be torn down. In our minds, we all have to make that choice. The self-help becomes a staged joke, laughable and clichéd. To declare every human being has the same rights, regardless of where they were born, and they all have the chance to control their own destiny, that is subversive.

Sunny’s younger brother keeps her grounded, when she feels empowered by city life. He runs away from the factory and lives, homeless, with ‘peasants who still act like peasants’. But the play is inconclusive on whether he was right or wrong to challenge her to be true to her values. The play points to cynical choices as the key to success… in tough economic times, in China, under State control. It is all terribly understandable. And in the end, her brother makes a terribly understandable decision.

Some scenes are unnecessary and the last, perhaps, is one of them. It was disturbing and in some ways it might be better not to see what happened to Sunny in the end. The audience could reach their own conclusions, their own stories, and it could reveal their own cynicism or optimism. It could have ended with her father’s hesitation to accept compensation for relinquishing his daughter, when he had previously happily sold her as a wife in the country. That could have said it all.

The World of Extreme Happiness, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Directed by Michael Longhurst. The Shed at The National Theatre.


Defining success

I was reading for entire days. Like I needed to read about it for it to be real.

In a moment of desperation, I Googled: ‘What do writers want?’ and ‘What do readers want?’

It was enlightening.

It’s difficult to place a price on your ephemeral love and need to pursue art.

But we kind of want the things that we actually fully control. The praise, the money, the stability? Not the primary reasons cited on why writers write.

What is wealth in life? Being happy inside, happy with your own conscience and believing in yourself when there’s no praise, no money, and no stability. I’d say that’s success. And money is just relative. Every second you could be earning more and every second not earning is a second wasted, and suddenly the rest of your life like relationships and love and poetry and music seem pointless but to me, that’s never pointless. Guess I’m one of those arty types. But it also applies to working too much instead of having sex, too.

There will always be setbacks. Periods of failure. So, you might as well choose what kind of failure you like best. Success is only recognised after the struggle, and perseverance is only appreciated after you persevered.

Success doesn’t have a stand-alone definition. It needs to be success at something.

But we’re grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.


You get to set the bar – that’s your freedom. You might not ‘make it’. If there even is such a thing as a ‘made it’ moment. Plenty of people don’t make it, ever. But, so what? If it’s worth the effort regardless of the result, you’ve found what you want and, you’ve found what you’ll never give up at – and that’ll increase your chances, anyway! Life’s a paradox.

If you have something to offer, define it and put it out there in the world. We all need it, whatever it is.



A small shift in my mind

Imitation of David in Florence. My trip 2013.

Imitation of David in Florence. My trip 2013.

The runner’s wall. The writer’s block. The compound rejections starting a career in an imploding industry. Living to fight another day when you’re hit in more ways than one.

Beyond the pain there is so much that is worth it. If the same methods don’t work then why not do something completely different? I decided to do something different. For the sake of it.

I regretted not doing it already and I could have waited to do the same thing for a day, week, another year or more. I did a small thing, a big thing, depending on your experiences. I booked a four day trip to Europe. For me, it was new and different and I have put it off for three years. I chose the earliest dates and went to Italy because I wanted to know I could do it on a whim with less preparation, less knowledge and before I was ‘ready’. I went for no reason. I went because why not?

Knowing I can and I did is better than just knowing I can.

In the big stories, there’s always an unexpected turn that propounds the character into a bigger and more exciting story. And it’s always uncomfortable, the ‘inciting incident’. To incite; it’s what great stories do. They change us in some way.


So, to get more elements of a great story in my life, I have to live a great story and meet those elements there. Mix the elements up.

A story is incomplete without pain and risk. To get more elements of a great story in my life, I have to live a great story and meet those elements there. We know it is only in the throes of danger that people grow into heroes. It’s what your favourite stories, books, films, plays, the great ones, tell us.

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

We’re all story tellers. We tell a story through the lives we live, our choices and the risks we take and don’t take. And the moment when you realise a better a story is possible is the only moment you will ever need.

It costs to be safe. You risk all that you could be. Your risk the best story ever told.

So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ― Mark Twain

6 Things I’ve Learned From 6 Months Blogging*

  1. Writing, and thinking, about the arts, culture, creativity and the value of it all has been more enjoyable than I even suspected. It’s brave to start, a force of will to continue, and doubtful to plan, a blog with a consistent publishing schedule about a topic you think you can cover well. I am proud of this statement of enjoyment in my work, confidence and inspiration to do better next time.
  2. I want to grow this blog but I will need your help! Contribute (for full credit and love!), subscribe, comment or email me on what you want to see here, what you don’t like, and who I should interview in the future. I will also try to answer any questions you have.
  3. I am touched by the awesomeness and encouragement of readers. Shout out to Matt Cummins, Just OK White Shark and REDMOONRABBITS for early comments and love.
  4. London is a fantastic place for this kind of thing.
  5. I use Morgue File and Flickr Creative Commons for excellent photos that are easy for bloggers to use
  6. Coin Phrases has reached an average of 4 (unique) readers a day. (And, I’ve earned 5p from ads!)


Happy half birthday!

Happy half birthday!

* I have actually run a personal blog for 3 years, before I set up this site specifically for arts-related topics.

How to be alone

I hear the clock tick with no panic and I reach the end of the day with no self-judgement.

At least, that is what I hope for, in life.

What you do when you find yourself alone affects everything. To simply feel what you need, to know yourself, and to reach peace inside, takes practise. But it is totally worth it and lovely to reach it.

And in the aloneness that isn’t lonely, that is where I believe I find my voice, when I follow the bunny hops of ideas and thoughts and trace them back together.

Do you hire talent? Or develop it?

Sunflower by clconroy

In the creative world, talent (rather than effort) is emphasised constantly. It’s that certain style, aesthetic, effortless brilliance, and you’ve either got it… or you haven’t. Right?

Is there such a thing as talent? Or just people along the learning curve? And, as an employer/mentor, you’re either in a position to develop it, or you’re not.

Here are some great insights on how attitudes towards creative work and juniors can play a huge role in the development of inborn talents and options for growth, from an interview with Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck – author of Mindset: The New Psychology for Success.


“If you are giving negative feedback, it should be about the process rather than the person. So you can praise what was good about the process, but then you can also analyse what was wrong about the process and what the person can do in order to increase the likelihood of succeeding next time.” … “when I say, ‘You’re a genius!”… how do you reproduce that over and over?”

“I’ve also fallen in love with a new word – “yet”. You can say to someone who fell short: “You don’t seem to have this,” but then add the word “yet”. As in, “you don’t seem to have these skills… yet.” By doing that, we give people a time perspective. It creates the idea of learning over time. It puts the other person on that learning curve.

She mentioned research on changing managers’ mindsets by Peter Heslin. Researchers followed managers who received growth mindset training and for the following six weeks found these managers were much more open to feedback from employees, were less likely to make snap judgements about who has talent and who doesn’t, and these managers were more willing to mentor others.

“If you’re in a fixed mindset and you believe that some people have it and some people don’t, you think, well “I will just wait and see who has it and who doesn’t. Cream rises to the top.”

“But if you have a growth mindset, you understand that “hey, I’m in the business of growing talent, helping it develop, not just sitting back and judging it.””


“Adults in a fixed mindset think that great effort, great struggle, means you’re not smart. The notion, ‘if I were smart/talented/it would just come to me’, but people in a growth  mindset enjoy the effort and welcome struggle. They understand that is what innovation requires.”

“In a growth mindset, you don’t always welcome the setback… but you understand that it’s information on how to move forward next time. It is a challenge that you are determined to surmount. In a fixed mindset, a setback calls your ability into question.”

“If you’re with someone who is tremendously able and successful, think: “what can I learn from this person? Yes, maybe I feel a little intimidated but this person could be a great mentor. I could learn a lot. Maybe I could get to know them, maybe they could take me under their wing.””