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Strong production of Kurt Vonnegut’s only published play demonstrates much of the late American writer’s wit

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The Old Red Lion has produced a commendable revival of Kurt Vonnegut’s only published play, Happy Birthday Wanda June.

Set against the Cold War backdrop of Vietnam-era America, it centres on famed war hero, game hunter and all-round alpha male of alpha males, Harold Ryan.

After being missing presumed dead for eight years, he returns home to his wife Penelope – and discovers to his disgust that she is engaged to a pacifist and their son Paul has grown into, as he would put it, a sissy.

It’s a bold production, not least because it’s always going to be judged against the late author’s fiction – which isn’t to everyone’s taste to start with.

The company, Act Up, has also opted to cast women in all the male roles, aside from Ryan (a good performance by Vincent Jerome) and his dim-witted sidekick Looseleaf Harper.

No doubt this mirrors how Ryan sees them – if you aren’t a fearsome fighter like him you’re no better than a woman – and it highlights the central tension between his rampant chauvinism and a world that has left him behind after eight years exile.

Inevitably, the material doesn’t quite match up to novels like Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle, with the pacing often faltering and dialogue at times ponderous.

Yet despite his imperfect command of the medium, the play is lifted by Vonnegut’s satirical wit, canny insight and surreal perspective. These qualities come to the fore in a series of hilarious interludes in heaven, where everyone from Jesus to Hitler (the admittance policy seems rather liberal) is consumed by a pointless pasttime. “In heaven, everything is shuffleboard,” we are told.

The production is well-acted and does a good job with the material – and there’s plenty for any Vonnegut admirers to enjoy.

* Happy Birthday Wanda June is at the Old Red Lion in St John Street, EC1, until November 24.

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