Car advertisements, like those for perfume, are their own unique brand of hyper commercialised sleaze. Watching the fromage-stinking images of shiny vehicles negotiating the hairpin bends of the Swiss alps or the night-time highways of modern urbanity, it’s hard to believe this shit sells. But it does. It mean, it must do, because otherwise people wouldn’t be buying cars and the ad men of the motor industry would be sent back to the drawing board.
Engine Brake, the new work-in-progress from The Plasticine Men, goes inside an advertising company attempting to come up with a new pitch to sell cars in India. Only two employees are present – Warren (Graeme Ross), a sweary white man, and his un-named, female Indian colleague (Radhika Aggarwal). On a practical level, Aggarwal’s character continually nudges Warren back to the straight and narrow of defining and redefining pitches. ‘AGAIN!’ she shouts each time he finishes vocalising his latest idea.
But her presence also feels more metaphorical, the younger woman appearing at times to act almost as Warren’s conscience and his counterbalance. As Warren unravels more and more, it’s the woman who keeps pushing his thoughts in all the directions he didn’t think to take them – namely, towards the buying power of young Indian women and their existence as a consumer group. The hints that Warren, as the colonialist import making money from selling goods to India, is rapidly becoming less good at his job is one of the most intriguing things about the developing work. The point isn’t laboured, but it’s clear the real thinking behind the piece extends far further than the car industry, and into imperialism, capitalism and consumerism.
The proposed ideas and slogans for new adverts are achingly realistic (and often pretty funny because of this). There’s the rugged-landscape-ultra-masculine offering, the new family lullaby scene and, finally, the sexy Italian cobbled streets and Mediterranean sun scenario (the sort Dolce and Gabbana have been peddling in their fashion ads for years). The point, of course, is that these adverts are always selling the consumer a dream, not a car. The young women targeted by the Italian ad can dream of being Anita Ekberg or Sophia Loren if only they have the right car to do it in. It’s a simple premise but one worth reiterating, because of how seductive this type of advertising is – even if you imagine yourself to be above it, you’re unlikely to remain entirely free from its claws.
The nice thing about Engine Brake as a work-in-progress is how economical, and therefore mature, it feels. A common characteristic of new shows is that they appear bloated and overly long. In fact, my most frequent feeling about shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is that they could do with 15 minutes shaving off them and the not-so-good bits scooping out. At only 45 minutes long, Engine Breakfeels like a bud just about to bloom, rather than an ungainly bush in need to judicious directorial pruning.
Engine Brake is a work-in-progress that is still being developed. It is touring until 9 June. Click here to find out more.