The room is dark. A tacky, gaudy tune plays from drawn curtains, before Emilie Hetland (of Volya Theatre) erupts from backstage in her traffic-light red blazer and trousers, throwing herself about the space as the mad and messy motivational speaker, Julia. She is a catastrophe – and an amazing one.
We’re nervous in the audience. It takes us time to get used to her character as she bounces off the walls, breaking us into our lesson for the day; the five steps to happiness. She explains them with the lolling gait of an excited new-born foal, who both rollicks and trembles about the stage as she supplements her advice with anecdotes that are surprisingly and strikingly tragic.
It’s a very intimate show. Hetland’s performance is broken up by the traumatic returns to Julia’s past. These moments aren’t trivialised, though of course they are laughed off by her motivational-speaker persona, who begins to visibly and disturbingly struggle as she makes her way to the end of the speech. They are expressed beautifully. One of these scenes almost brings me to tears – Hetland, as an actor, knows exactly the scope of her abilities, and plays them out to both a terrific and devastating contrast between the facets of her on-stage character. She is nothing short of fantastic, and certainly deserving of a much bigger stage than the one she takes up today. The one-woman show is an extremely hard thing to master, but Hetland carries its difficult title with grace and charm.
The content matter of A Short Cut To Happiness includes explicit references to self-harm. One can guess that by its clever moniker, which provides a satisfying double meaning to the audience at the end of the performance. The show’s running is perfectly timed, with ample room given to develop Julia’s story without dragging it out and risking a romanticised reliance on the topic of mental health, which is an extremely difficult subject to master to begin with. But Hetland, as both writer and actor, has done it, and she’s done it well.
A multi-layered and self-critical show, A Short Cut To Happiness treads the line between hilarity and despair with all the ease of a world-class tightrope artist. I leave the venue in awe, and that feeling still hasn’t faded. I am excited to see what Hetland and Volya Theatre produce next, and I’m sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for them at next year’s Fringe.