Pre-packaged, mass manufactured and the result of something else – Mark Ravenhill’s one-hour monologue delights in the many meanings of ‘product’. It’s a sourly brilliant satire on the crass commerciality of big-screen filmmaking, but it’s also a sharp look at the way the anodyne language of cinema informs the way we see ourselves in relation to the world.
In this first revival of the piece since Ravenhill himself performed it in 2005, also at the Fringe, Olivia Poulet is Leah, pitching a role in a new screenplay to unseen starlet Julia as if her life depended on it. The potential film is a car-crash of racial stereotypes and sub-Bridget Jones delusions of self-profundity. It’s a western fantasy of jihadism, of a torrid affair with a ‘dusky’ terrorist, featuring a cameo from Osama bin Laden.
Ravenhill hits his targets with laser-like precision. The script is littered with pitch-perfect parodies of film-speak, with Leah interrupting her flow to talk about ‘character beats’ and older female figures who – because, of course, they can no longer be sexual onscreen – will be ‘mentors’. It’s a mercilessly funny anatomisation of every awful default setting in Hollywood. And it’s also about the way that we distort and exploit the tragedies of the real world for our own ends – feasting on them as food for our own sense of self-importance. Media-inflamed tropes of terrorism are co-opted into ludicrous erotic fantasy by Leah’s dreadful film, which reduces 9/11 to a crude, obvious plot device.
Self-discovery and going on a ‘journey’ – Ravenhill strikes at the heart of mainstream modern cinema’s most insidious clichés, the lazy shorthand to seeming meaningful. Comically exaggerated Al-Qaeda plans to blow up Europe are simply window dressing to the ‘pain’ suffered by our heroine in the throes of love. There’s no political engagement – she’s little more than Carrie Bradshaw with a gun.
But as sharp and engaged as Product is, it would be easy for it to come across as glib – just a clever writer being clever. What makes Robert Shaw’s production something more is Poulet’s nuanced performance as Leah. First off, her comic-timing is great. She excels at conveying nervy, faked chumminess and sells the unseen starlet’s clear lack of interest in the film with each faltering pause and every shrill claim about its award-winning potential.
But what Poulet does particularly well is to hint at an undertow of desperation that goes beyond someone simply trying to salvage their career. As she immerses herself in her pitch, eyes closed, there’s a profoundly sad sense that Leah shares the feelings she imputes to the film’s heroine. George Tarbuck’s lighting emphasises this, changing colour and spotlighting her as she drops into a private fantasy world.
As a result, Leah in some ways becomes as much a victim of the world Ravenhill is skewering as a cynical caricature of it. The ultimate effect of this is to ground the resulting monologue and the issues it so skilfully and playfully lays out before the audience in an even sadder and more depressing place.