What struck me about Ravenhill’s apparently “scandalous” play twenty years on was that it hadn’t dated much at all. After all, it was first produced before the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and Grindr had seen the light of day and the smart money was on the show now being mild, tame, unshocking and not especially outrageous. Not a chance. It is no longer “scandalous” of course. But then again, as Ravenhill tells us in his introduction to the present production, it never actually was “scandalous”. It was mainly just the title that got the Daily Mail frothing. But these days the Daily Mail froths about Marmite, so everything’s relative. Director Sean Holmes roots his present production firmly in its time and takes no heed of the intervening technological advances which makes for a good historical record but also a resoundingly relevant dialectic for today. The one little concession he makes is the appearance on the ubiquitous video banks of a Bitcoin (created 2008) at one point: well, in the end, the show isn’t principally about homosexuality, or drug addiction, or sexploitation, or convenience foods, or recreational highs – it’s about money: the power of money. And that, actually, hasn’t changed a bit whether it be paying for sex or for the price of Pot Noodles or yeast extract. Ravenhill was spot on then and he’s still spot on now.
And, of course, it’s the writing that counts. Ravenhill’s rasping dialogue, his ear for the mundane conversation and his rhythmic control of an idea being articulated mark him out as a special playwright and Shopping and F***ing as a special play.
The Lion King scene is a prime example. It’s the soul-destroying audition process writ large and is now a wonderful piece of metatheatre, with the Lion King itself a major theatrical event playing down the road at the Lyceum: true theatrical self-parody as a result of apparent unintended consequences. Or maybe it’s just that Ravenhill got there first. Auditioner/Drug Baron Brian, played in sinister and chilling style by Ashley McGuire dressed in a clinical white suit, settles on the messy confusion like a deranged angel of no mercy. I didn’t like the two occasions where she screams at the audience which detracted a bit from the brilliant character that she had painstakingly created: stay classy through menace, as Pinter might have said. But that her nightmarish persona should actually bring a semblance of reality to the surreal action taking place around her is good testimony to her withering and worrying presence. Her final exit ad lib, directed at the two saps who had been lured into the seats on stage and who actually become part of the action – for which they pay five quid for the privilege but do get a bottle of Cava – is exquisite: You drunk the f*cking lot she whines as she picks up the empty Cava bottle.
This show only works if the cast play it to the hilt. The ménage à trois of Robbie (Alex Arnold), Mark (Sam Spruell) and Lulu (Sophie Wu) certainly do that whether singing, dancing, getting down and dirty or spewing up. There’s no holds barred here and their mission to fully engage the audience, sitting with them, dancing with them, selling them badges and dragging my guest on stage to slow dance with Mark (never knew he had it in him) meant that engagement was total. We might think that here is Brechtian alienation on speed with the videos, the live-streaming, the songs, the audience participation and the in-vision use of stage crew but I would classify it more as audience discombobulation. The audience is engaged and discombobulated at the same time. That is as rare as it is clever. And this cast has the energy, the verve and the expertise to pull it off.
No more so than with David Moorst as Gary. This guy is something else: brash, exciting, provocative, arrogant and acts like a “bit of a c*nt“, Moorst electrifies the action and elevates it to an altogether different level. But then we also see the tenderness and pathos of a fourteen-year-old boy who comes to terms with a brutal adult world in the only way he can. Moorst is an outstanding member of an outstanding cast.
The design of the production by Jon Bausor and Tal Rosner is wholly effective and in keeping with the immersive aspect of the show: the term “immersive” theatre hadn’t been invented back in ’96 – so there you go again: Ravenhill ahead of the game. Nice touch with Grace Smart’s excellent costumes was that every item of clothing had a price tag on it. Lighting Designer Anna Watson dealt efficiently with all the curve balls the director flung at her – green screens, video walls, live feeds, 90’s disco and a giant hand-held mirror ball – and her lighting was complementary and creative. Loved the scissor-extenders! And Nick Manning had a ball with his sound.
The audience gets a great feeling of elation coming out of the show despite the horribly dark stuff that happens in it. We now know just how prescient Ravenhill’s script was back then – he was telling us exactly how supermarkets, and banks, maybe, would be exploiting us and what was going to appear on the then unimagined dark web. Follow the money was the cry. Personally I’d be tempted to shave the long moralising speeches at the end of the play: back then perhaps you needed to spell it out but I think the play proper does that perfectly and today’s audiences are perhaps a little more sophisticated and get it: maybe that’s what has changed, in part due to Ravenhill’s work and that of the likes of Sarah Kane and Joe Penhall. And I did feel that getting a bloke from the front row to read the final speech was a self-indulgence too far. But, along with the power of money, that is Ravenhill’s theme: there are many aspects of life that are a self-indulgence too far.
Review by Peter Yates
It’s summer. I’m in a supermarket. It’s hot and I’m sweaty. Damp. And I’m watching this couple shopping. I’m watching you. And you’re both smiling. You see me and you know sort of straight away that I’m going to have you.’
Twenty years since its explosive premiere, Olivier Award-winning director Sean Holmes brings Mark Ravenhill’s provocative first play, Shopping and F***ing back to the stage.
With a raw mixture of black humour and bleak philosophy, the play follows three disconnected young adults whose lives have been reduced to a series of transactions in an emotionally shrink-wrapped world. A place where Shopping is sexy and F***ing is a job.
Casting includes: Alex Arnold will be playing Robbie, Ashley McGuire will be playing Brian, David Moorst will be playing Gary, Sam Spruell will be playing Mark, Sophie Wu will be playing Lulu.
Written by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Sean Holmes
Design by Jon Bausor and Tal Rosner
Costume by Grace Smart
Lighting by Anna Watson
Sound by Nick Manning
Associate Director Jude Christian
Shopping & F***ing at the Lyric Hammersmith
King Street, Lyric Square, London, W6 0QL
Friday 7th October – Saturday 5th November 2016