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Happy to Help at Park Theatre – Review

l-r Jonny Weldon and Ben Mann in Happy To Help, Park Theatre (c)David Monteith-Hodge
l-r Jonny Weldon and Ben Mann in Happy To Help, Park Theatre (c)David Monteith-Hodge

The world premiere of Michael Ross’s Happy to Help is now playing at the Park Theatre, delving into the world of supermarket shelf-stacking and power struggles. Ross’s play hones in on those corporate giants that give consumers the ease, convenience and low prices that smaller independent shops simply cannot match. Moreover, as the play begins, the audience is given an insight into the way that supermarkets treat their suppliers, including those at the very bottom of the food chain – the farmers themselves.

In Happy to Help, Frisca is the supermarket of dreams; one can have a check-up at the medical counter, get married, and even hold funerals in the Departure Lounge Crematorium. The store is headed by tyrannical manager Vicky (played with acerbic sneeriness by Katherine Kotz), who agrees to give UK Managing Director Tony (a bumbling, hapless Charles Armstrong) a week working as a shelf-stacker under the name ‘Derek’, who is to receive ‘no special treatment’ under any circumstances. Naturally, the week does not go smoothly; despite the advertisements that promote Frisca’s ‘happy family’ approach, Tony begins to learn of his staff’s jaded attitudes, his consumers’ demands, and the politics underpinning store management (favouritism, unionism, and various other ‘isms’).

Yet whilst the premise is interesting (and topical), the plot is thin, with the characters often veering into caricature (this is amusing in places, although unrealistic in others). Only towards the somewhat melodramatic end are we given a glimmer of understanding as to why Vicky is the way she is (though it’s actually funnier and more realistic if she is just an evil, sad little woman. End of).

With Tony’s tumultuous journey, we see the fickle workings of the corporate world; by juxtaposing the façade and the reality that lurks beneath, we are alerted to those that, in effect, help to put food on our tables by working in dead end jobs for minimum wage. Yet if Roxy Cook’s amusing, slick production often fails to land a punch where it is most needed, the cast make up for that with charm, charisma, and impeccable comic timing. A fun show, definitely – but one that might not make you think twice about stopping off at Sainsbury’s for a snack on the way home.

4 stars

Review by Amy Stow

Celia Dugua in association with Shout In The Dark, Kabnis Productions, Claire Evans & Park Theatre presents the World Premiere of Happy To Help By Michael Ross

Directed by Roxy Cook
An acerbic new comedy about how we’ve become a nation of shop assistants.
A destitute farmer sells his land to the supermarket chain that drove him out of business.
Fifteen years later and a bustling supermarket stands on the same spot. UK managing director Tony is coming to work undercover at the store for a week. Branch manager Vicky is determined to give him a more grimly authentic experience than he’d ever dared wish for. Shelf-stacker Josh dreams of escape and rock stardom. Union organiser Elliot dreams of Josh. By Friday, nothing will ever be the same for them again.

Developed with Park’s Script Accelerator Programme and shortlisted for the 2015 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize.
This show is supported by the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation.

Playing to 9th July 2016
Running Time
1 hours 50 mins [inc. 20 min. interval]
https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/

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