A group-therapy session seems, on the face of it, to be one of the last places one might associate with the making of a musical comedy. Conor Mitchell's Have a Nice Life, however, sets its dramatic focus around just such a session in Northern Ireland.
The first play by Plug Productions, a theatre company supported by Kenneth Branagh, Have a Nice Life arrives at the Pleasance, London after a year's gestation, during which it has been transformed from a rehearsed reading under the title of Group, into a full-scale production first staged at Belfast's Lyric Theatre.
Written and composed by Mitchell, Have A Nice Life is the 25-year-old's first attempt at a full-scale musical - and while that prospect might have overwhelmed others, for Mitchell the opposite seems to have been true. Having already composed pieces for the National Youth Music Theatre, Mitchell took to the task with brio, and finished the first draft after only two weeks. "I wanted to do a musical because it's fun, and it hadn't been done in Northern Ireland. Then, I had to find an excuse for people to burst into song. I decided that in order to make the scenes work, the characters would either have to be in therapy or at a séance, so I opted for therapy. And, because I wrote it so quickly, the melodies are considerably more hummable than if I'd spent months on it. It would have got too complex."
Set in a black box theatre, with a six-piece orchestra, Have a Nice Life turns on a single therapy session at which only six people of the 20 expected have turned up. Told they must open up, the group find common ground in the fact that they have all been abandoned in the past - the title is taken from their joint attempts to reconcile themselves to those who have left them. The play addresses the issue of taking full responsibility for our lives, instead of blaming others.
Despite the maudlin subject matter, Mitchell sees the tone throughout as being comic - albeit of a pitch-black nature. This is particularly true of his characterisations, which hark back to Hollywood archetypes - but with a darker edge. "Chris is a hopeless romantic who goes off into a fast number reminiscent of the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire era, in the style of those great, over-the-top MGM musicals," says Mitchell. "Sheila is the cock-eyed optimist, the one who falls apart. She starts in Disney'esque sugar-coated song, yet becomes darker and darker as the plot moves on.
"I didn't want it to be totally serious," he continues. "The music is what you'd expect in a smoky bar as opposed to group psychology. I've drawn on a lot of German cabaret and old-style jazz. It's a sneaky way to get a message across - underneath the enjoyable score and catchy music, the lyrics explore important issues about abandonment and therapy. Have a Nice Life questions whether we really need it."
Have a Nice Life, Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, London N7 (020-76091800; www.pleasance.co.uk) tomorrow to 22 Jun, £12 -£15Reuse content