In the hunt for the great play about the service industry, Happy to Help is very nearly it. Michael Ross’s new play at the Park Theatre chronicles a week in the life of a shelf stacker at a backwater branch of the supermarket giant Frisca, where the UK managing director decides to go undercover to get up close and personal with his staff – with dire consequences.
In a nation where unfeasibly low wages in the arts industry are forcing artists to find new ways to earn their crust, we are ripe for a piece of theatre that picks apart the deadening grind of customer service: where the work is hard and the perks, pay and prospects are comically bleak. Playwright Ross captures the Orwellian doublethink of the industry with the insight of a man who has stacked a few shelves in his lifetime, and for any alumnus of a low level service position the play starts out as a riot. It’s got it all: the would-be rock star beaten into middle management, the union agitator, the maniacal store manager who delights in touting the party line (or in this case, the Frisca song).
The creation of Frisca itself is a thing to be commended: this is a sharply satirical, cult-like corporate entity with its own language and belief system, brought to life by Emma Tompkins’s non-biodegradable splat of a set. The belly laughs come as new employees are forced to sing the Frisca song or shout IT FEELS AMAZING at any mention of the chains’ dizzying profit margins. Images of grinning families endlessly consuming overwhelm the realities of bankrupted farmers and marginalized workers.
Unfortunately, a sharp left turn into melodrama in the final act turns this cracking black comedy into a dusty episode of Dynasty. Store manager Vicky is deliciously portrayed by Katherine Kotz, delighting in docking wages, passing out warnings and crushing dreams, but her motivations are revealed to pack far less of a punch. Sometimes, we think, as deep dark secrets abound and mysteries we didn’t even know were there unravel, people can be evil just for the hell of it. In the beginning, the play’s power comes from its hairpin proximity to reality. The characters draped in the standard Frisca red feel like rats trapped in a maze, and we feel for them as they jump through the bureaucratic hoops and rail against the faux-positivity that their overlords expect of them. Sadly, the play’s descent into incredulity undermines its ability to say something truly meaningful about the soulless capitalist world it has created.
As self-service check out machines and automated helpful robots rear their mechanical heads, the future of the customer service assistant does not look bright. Though Happy to Help is a fun, witty take on the bizarre world of indentured corporate servitude, the hunt for a play which truly skewers this frightening corporate world trundles on.
Happy to Help is on until 9th July 2016. Click here for more information.