15 September @ Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford – ★★★★

I’ve never been happy making notes in the theatre. Though it’s enormously helpful, I’ve always felt self-conscious about it, worried I’m drawing attention to myself from both performers and spectators. Largely, I’ve avoided taking paper and pen into shows, relying on memory to write about them (I know, “That explains a lot,” think readers of my previous reviews).

For Tabby Lamb’s Happy Meal, I decided to get over myself and go equipped. I sat in the front row (only space left) of the 50-seater Burton Taylor – house lights still up – and got my notebook and biro out of my bag as subtly as I could. Meanwhile Sam Crerar (Alec) and Allie Daniel (Bette) stand before us in penguin costumes. The latter spots me, her eyes widen, and with a clear flipper motion I know she’s watching me – and actually, I suddenly feel more at ease.

The actors are so dressed in honour of Club Penguin, the first of several online platforms over which Alec and Bette communicate throughout Happy Meal. Ben Stones’ smart set positions them behind big messenger icons, while Daniel Denton’s video and Eliyana Evans’ sound accurately denote which portal the pair are speaking on. Evans also includes the dial-up tone for that extra dose of throwback.

I turn 30 this year and remember naming bands I wanted people to think I liked on Bebo and Myspace – I’d watch a couple of Good Charlotte videos on Kerrang! and they’d make the list. Lamb’s script is about as relatable as it could be in this regard, with both her characters telling us which artists they’re into (I’m pretty sure HIM once featured on my pages too).

At the heart of all of this, though, is an endearing, emotional and ultimately joyous story. A play for the trans community, Alec and Bette’s computer conversations document both their transitioning journeys, culminating in the establishment of a safe seat on the (actual, not virtual) bus they both catch. Here they can protect each other – and eat McDonald’s.

Fluidly directed by Jamie Fletcher, and sensitively handled by the two actors, Happy Meal manages to burst with nostalgia while being completely current. Thank goodness it’s so good – a bad review might have resulted in some form of penguin punishment.

Happy Meal is at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 21-24 September

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