With a sly wink-and-nudge, the MTC’s new Lawler Studio play introduces itself with double entendre. But Melissa Reeves’ latest offering Happy Ending doesn’t deal in crudities, referencing instead the decidedly less-cheeky, more eternal implications of the adage as it follows a lovelorn woman with a crush in the most unconventional of settings – a massage parlour in Northland Shopping Centre.
Reeves, an established local playwright known for works The Spook, Furious Mattress and Who’s Afraid of the Working Class thinks back to its origins, removed in a sense from what the final performed product will be. “It actually didn’t start as a play, it started as a tiny piece of prose. I wrote a short piece about a woman who thinks the guy who is massaging her at the massage shop in the shopping centre – she thinks there’s a bit of frisson between them, so it’s sort of her examining that and thinking about it and describing it, and him talking a little bit about what he thinks about her.”
In this little composition the romantic feelings were somewhat unrequited, with the relationship a fantasy the woman had conceived about a younger man. According to Reeves this story, and the play itself, touches on middle age sexuality and being a middle aged woman, “which, you know, I am,“ she says. “I think I know the terrain. I personally haven’t had a thing with a young masseur; it’s not autobiographical in that way, but being 50 years old and being a woman, you think about whether you have any agency in the world. Disappearing. And whether you’re still attractive. All of those issues are real and I have touched on some of that stuff. “
Another angle for the playwright is the intimate act of a massage itself – having a stranger’s hands wandering your body’s topography with supposed medicinal purpose. “I do go and have massages at a massage establishment and always find it such an interesting contract that’s going on. It is a very intimate thing and yet you don’t know these people from Adam, and they’re touching you, and I found that an interesting thing to explore. Maybe it does feel quite special or unusual.”
When she was approached by Aidan Fennessy, the theatre company’s associate director, he asked her to produce a script for the MTC and she offered that small idea. Gradually, this was developed into a fully-fledged production. “I thought about that little bit, maybe I could develop into a play, and that’s how it started. It grew from there. But as I started writing it I did worry, is this too small a story for a play?”
Growing the piece from a short story to a full-length production required some narrative invention on the writer’s behalf. “As I was writing it I didn’t know if it was quite enough of a story, so I brought in a few other things, like a thread with a friend that she talks to a lot, and also that she’s not sure how to get to know this young man. So she goes and talks to a friend of a friend of a relative, a businessman who works a lot in China. So it sort of touches on our business relationship with China in a lateral way.“
Bit by bit, she says, the other characters started to become more fleshed out, and as she added the character of the businessman and his lover it plumped out enough to be a play, albeit a rollicking one-act one. “Funnily enough it was a two-act play until about a week ago,” she says. “It’s a one-act play now which I think is right. The director Susie D, who is fabulous, felt like if it could go straight through then it would be great, because it’s sort of like a fable in a way. We’ve made a few little cuts so it’ll be able to go straight through.”
And of its production, Reeves says, “it’s been coming together well.” Progressing onto her second MTC-commissioned play, following on from Art and Soul a number of years ago, this play has taken on a slightly different life. With previous works exploring typically dark matter, tragi-comedy Furious Mattress for example detailing the hazards of backyard exoricism, this mostly lighthearted piece strays from Reeve’s typical writerly oeuvre.
“I think this is a little bit of a departure for me in terms of style, although maybe not as much as I first thought,” she says. “It’s certainly more a personal little story, and I don’t think – I’ve gone for larger stories and not necessarily stories about people’s romantic life. And I’ve gone for bleaker topics. This one’s pretty easy-going in a way, it’s sort of a social comedy in a way. But you still write it how you write it.”
There’s always anxiety about how a play will be received by audiences but Reeves, after a fit of booming laughter, attempts to answer the difficult question. “I hope it resonates with the present day. There’s this middle-aged woman who goes for this young masseur – she’s hopefully engaging and we like her, but is she crossing a boundary? And I guess that’s a bit what the play’s about as well.”
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
Happy Ending shows at the The MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio from Wednesday September 5 – Saturday September 22.