Feb 28, 2024

‘Happiness Then’: A Challenging Perspective on Transness

Elizabeth Moynihan’s 'Happiness Then' considers the loss of love at Bewleys Café Theatre

Laura O’CallaghanTheatre Editor
Photo via Bewley's Cafe

Elizabeth Moynihan’s Happiness Then had its world premiere on February 14th at Bewleys Café Theatre and will run until March 9th. A dramatic-comedy, the play explores the loss of love between and in the lives of a pair of sisters, Bridget (Rachael Dowling) and Frances (Sorcha Furlong). The small stage blended into the low-lit café, with just an elevated platform dividing the audience from the set, and warm chatter filled the room as the crowd settled down.

Everyone and their mother seemed to have bought a ticket for this Valentine’s day afternoon show. Actually, a more accurate representation of the crowd would be to say that everyone and their grandmother could be found in the jam-packed cafe. Well dressed in clothes much more sophisticated than mine, elderly ladies and gentlemen made up a large portion of the crowd. In fact, the majority of the audience were situated firmly in the over 45 age bracket. With such a diverse age range to cater to, I was curious to see the difference in reception between myself and the rest of the crowd.

The show begins with the two estranged sisters sitting down together in a wine bar. Their intention is to discuss their mother’s will and the obscene amount of money she has left to her caregiver. It gradually becomes clear that Frances has reached out to her sister, not to chat about the will, but to attempt to reconnect with her. She’s chosen this evening to extend the olive branch because of her recently spiralling marriage. Eventually the audience understands that more than reigniting a sisterly connection, what the two women want most is to vent about their issues. Though they each hold onto their share of narcissism, in the end, they both realise that they may also need some old-fashioned support after all the venting has dried up.


Frances is an interesting character and is played wonderfully by Sorcha Furlong who is best known for her performance as Orla Molloy in the RTÉ soap Fair City. Frances is described by Happiness Then’s playwright Elizabeth Moynihan as an “extremely high-functioning alcoholic”. She reads as chaotic, charismatic, sex-positive, compassionate and ultimately extremely likeable, as she delivers dig after dig to the more neurotic and high-strung Bridget. She rebukes Bridget’s inability to respect people’s pronouns with a balsé “it’s better to be woke than an asshole”, and is trying to go vegan, but didn’t stop herself from ordering the cheese board starter.

Acting against Furlong, Rachael Dowling’s performance paled considerably. Her delivery lacked energy, most notably at the play’s climax. There seemed to be no build-up at all leading to the pivotal moment where Frances grips Bridget’s arm to show her how “loving too much” can bruise. A shattering scream of outrage bursts seemingly out of nowhere from her sister that invokes confusion more than empathy. To add insult to injury, Bridget’s character and story translated as slightly cliché. The overbearing, perfectionist mother who drives her only son out of the house when he can’t get over his addiction problems can’t help but feel tired, especially considering the absence of an exceptional performance to bolster the lack of creativity in the writing.

There was a lot more nuance in Frances’ story. Her husband Daragh has recently come out as trans and their marriage has broken down in the aftermath. As a queer woman with non-binary friends, alarm bells sounded when I considered the circumstances of this plotline: I initially feared that two cis-gendered, heterosexual women talking about the added pressure introduced to their lives by another person realising their trans identity would be excessively hateful. The delivery of the “reveal” that Daragh had transitioned did not inspire confidence for the show’s subsequent handling of this narrative. Bridget asks where Daragh has moved to, using ‘he’ pronouns, and Frances takes a (melo)dramatic beat before projecting her line “she*” into the crowd with a wistful look in her eye. I stifled a groan at the “shock-factor” pronoun drop.

Fortunately, some of my worries were assuaged as it became clear that Moynihan hadn’t written in Daragh as a tokenistic side character, existing solely to situate Happiness Then in 2024. Frances’ past relationship and present relationship breakdown with Daragh is pivotal to her character and to her story. Frances, who is a self-proclaimed open, enlightened and accepting person, can’t get past the mental block that appears when the dynamics of her romantic relationship are altered drastically.

Essentially, neither partner is villainised in the relationship. The divorce is triggered in the first place because Frances cheats on Daragh by sleeping with someone else. Moreover, it’s triggered by the fact that Frances can’t seem to be as accepting in practice as she is in a vacuum. This character trait of hers does not exist in isolation, it bleeds into Frances’ desperate need to be loved and wanted, an after-effect of her mother’s childhood neglect. It also connects with her tendency to see things in terms of herself, pointed out several times by Bridget.

Frances describes seeing Daragh again after the breakup and before she moves away, “I love you”, she says, “don’t go”. Furlong’s acting here at Frances’ emotional climax was 

wholly believable and painfully authentic. Had Frances and Daragh’s relationship been any less developed, this plot would have fallen flat. As it is, it is narratively significant and is given the space and light it deserves in the play.

Theatre is for the living, and this is a well-written, lived experience that does not seek to demonise either party. Both women are flawed in their actions and both love each other deeply. Such a play inspires a question: Is it beneficial and fair to have transness portrayed in stories, even if it is not shed in a particularly positive light and does not sit at the focal point of the story? I believe so – solely positive trans and queer representation in fiction isn’t true to the authentic queer and trans experience. It is also poor writing to deliver one dimensional characters through singular perspectives. With all that said, art, when treating the representations of living, breathing people in society with deserved respect and authenticity, should inspire conflicting, new perspectives to consider. Happiness Then succeeded in that sense. 

It’s also deeply positive to remember who exactly this play will be reaching. Older Irish men and women who have presumably been alienated from exposure to queer and trans narratives in their lives are invited into Happiness Then to consider those experiences from a perspective that may resonate with them. The implication of that is the fostering of a greater tolerance throughout generations in Ireland, and a much more casual treatment of non-conformity. Make sure to grab a ticket to Happiness Then, running until March 9th, with matineé performances at 1 pm.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.