A Guide to Unhappiness is a self-aware show that realises introspection, like many things, is better in moderation. Here it is lightened, maybe enlightened, by some comedic flourishes.
Sunny Leunig’s Magosopher is a magician and a philosopher and this amalgam leaves him a downbeat drably-dressed performer who’s burdened by the struggle for meaning in his life. Every magician needs an assistant, and he has enthusiastic, but not always competent, co-writer Jono Burns. Yes, decay may be inevitable, but Burns, resplendent in a red velvet jacket, knows that the audience would rather see some amazing magic than think about how trying life is. And, when intending to succeed, the magic was mostly wondrous and inexplicable.
We learn of Leunig’s trip to see family in Germany spliced between tricks and metaphysical ruminations. Based on a true story, this outing could very easily be depressing with a lesser script or without Anne Browning’s sensitive direction. The often dark mood is especially countered by Burns’s portrayal of Aunty Irina, a gypsy queen from Bulgaria with deliberately bad pronunciation and a worse accent, who helps Leunig rediscover the path to magosophy he started on in childhood.
At times the script is a bit heavy-handed on the life-is-miserable and light on the philosophy, but such matters are trifling. Chloe Greaves’s design aids in defining the characters and distinguishes the act from a standard magic routine, and Joseph Leunig Norster’s lighting and projection are mostly effective at creating mood, despite the opening night technical glitches. Live music is from Sara Retallick who, with a delicious reticence, also assists the tricks and plays a small but important part in a subplot.
And there are some good laughs.
Leunig relates a snippet from Socrates: “the life which is unexamined is not worth living”, but that’s not the only voice we should consider in a balanced life. Having seen this show, the Lennon–McCartney lyric “I get by with a little help from my friends” springs to mind and I feel the need to email friends I haven’t seen for a while, and I encourage you to take yours along for some Fringe alchemy. Don’t delay, as life – and a fringe season – is short.