Are you sitting uncomfortably?

Zoà Simon reviews: Peter Hall (director), 'Happy days', by Samuel Beckett, The Arts Theatre

Felicity Kendall (Winnie) and Col Farrell (Willie) star in this intriguing new production of Beckett's bleak play about old age and faded glories.

Beckett's genius was to realise that the most powerful emotions need no introduction: they are as a world - entire in themselves. His highly conceptual approach to the play text - based on his own insights concerning the human condition - spawned a uniquely distilled and deeply tragic brand of theatre of which Happy days is a paradigm.

Hence the beginning of the play is not so much a beginning as an unmasking - the black drape falls, rather than rises, to reveal an old woman literally marooned in her surrounding landscape. This is more usually - and textually more faithfully - a heap of sand in which Winnie is buried up to her waist, and subsequently her neck. However, set designer Kate Hall has replaced it with a vortex-like structure, in which Winnie emerges from the centre - a striking and successful innovation. It heightens the play's physical resonances, allowing the audience to become more emotionally involved in Winnie's physical disintegration.

As a woman I found this immediately resonant. Women navigating the unfashionable territories of late middle age and beyond regularly remark they have become 'invisible' to most. Competent actresses cease to be cast, once they become less than nubile, literally fading from view. I, for one, am all too aware that in our increasingly shallow society, my young body is perceived to be as much of a commodity as my labour.

How interesting that such a play should emerge from the inkwell of a man, how depressing that it is only a comparatively new play - it was first performed in 1961 - and how surprising, considering the youth-obsessed culture we live in. Statistics show that women, like men, are living much longer, and that the number of pensioners of both sexes has ballooned in recent years. This is a fact little reflected in the arts from West End smash hits like This is our youth to multiplex goldmines like American pie. As Self eloquently remarks in How the dead live, "Where, oh where are the old women of the 20th century? So few films, photographs and television pictures include us."

Despite the characteristic minim-alism of the piece, Kendall is endlessly diverting and deeply tragic as she ekes out the last of her pink lipstick - a beautiful metaphor for her remaining bodily charms. There is always the hint of a sob beneath her husky, guttural delivery, a brave choice on Hall's part, when previous directors have mined Winnie's more obvious comic potential.

Go and see Happy days - yes, it makes uncomfortable viewing, but there is something uplifting about seeing the human condition so intimately and so simply portrayed. If you cannot afford a ticket (the cheapest are £19) Beckett's plays were recently adapted for film and are available on video. They make dangerously compelling viewing.

Zoà Simon