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Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 17 October 2016

Review: Shopping and Fucking at the Lyric Hammersmith

Lyric Hammersmith ⋄ 7th October - 5th November 2016

Nineties naffness: Holly Williams reviews the first revival of Mark Ravenhill’s play in 20 years.

Holly Williams
Shopping and Fucking at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Shopping and Fucking at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Shopping and Fucking. What a great name for a play – short and sharp, memorable and naughty, Nineties as fuck. And a name that, arguably, helped ensure the play was remembered for causing a ‘scandal’ when it was first put on in 1996; a myth Mark Ravenhill eloquently refutes in a foreword to a 20th anniversary addition of the text. But the play, despite becoming one of those plays, hasn’t had a major revival since its hugely popular first run in the West End.

This production by Sean Holmes – who’s making a habit of reviving controversial plays, having dusted off Saved, Blasted and Herons too – reveals the prophetic nature of Ravenhill’s bleak and blackly funny play, but also situates it very firmly in a sort of hyper-real version of its precise historical moment. In short, it’s Nineties through and through.

The cast wear bumbags and tie-dye; they play East 17 and Take That (natch: the characters take their names from the band). Everything is day-glo, everything’s a game show. But it’s Nineties like a nostalgia night, an American Apparel advert, a Freshers’ week event – too bright, too much. It puts the setting in massive great quotation marks.

In Jon Bausor and Tal Risner’s design, the audience is on raked TV studio seating. Much of the action is set against a green screen, so cheap-looking backdrops can be chucked behind the actors on other large screens. These also turn the musical moments into karaoke, a simulacrum of song. It’s all deliberately fake and vacuous; about people who are perceived as being empty and hollow.

It’s an effectively coherent, fully realised vision, that’s for sure. And Holmes also ramps up – albeit rather unnecessarily – the everything-is-consumerism angle: every item of clothing and furniture has a neon price tag, and the actors even awkwardly try to flog the audience badges and beer in a ‘selling interlude’. But I’m not sure the play benefits from an aesthetic that is quite so… cynical.

While Shopping and Fucking seems to be about people who are coldly buying and selling each other – sex a transaction like any other – it’s actually a tender play. They may be atomised or disconnected (one of the ways the text feels prophetic), but aren’t all the characters really just longing for love?

Recovering smack addict Mark – who ‘bought’ young couple Robbie and Lulu – may bang on about needing to not feel anything, but he’s clearly desperate for intimacy. Gary is a teenage boy who’s been abused by his step-dad; he may be hyper-sexed but really wants someone to look after him. Robbie gives away – instead of selling – 300 ecstasy tablets because he wants everyone to feel good and connected. Even the monstrous drug dealer/shopping channel maven Brian – here played by Ashley McGuire with a brilliant mix of sentimentality and brutality – claims he’s doing it all for the sake of his kid, for the next generation.

But moments of actual yearning, of wishing life could be better or different or kinder, are staged as completely false and meaningless as the rest of it. There’s muzack and glitter at a loving kiss; that moment of feeling liberated by drugs is soundtracked by bloody ‘Eberneezer Goode’.

There’s also an element of this fakeness to the acting. The characters keep one eye on the audience, with a sort of ‘amiright?’ attitude. Interactions often seem inflated. It makes it a fun watch – there’s a jittery relentlessness, as if you’re watching after eating too many E Numbers. And they totally nail the play’s dark humour; I laughed a lot. But the contrived aspects can also jar.

Despite this, Sam Spryell reveals a degree of both warmth and anguish beneath the psycho-babble spouting Mark, and Alex Arnold as Robbie has a shambling sweetness under his stagey petulance or gurning buzz.

You could see this as the ultimate post-modern play, characters even discussing the death of grand narratives, how we’ve run out of big stories and are all just frantically telling our own little ones. But if that sounds like the sort of theory last seen in the seminar room, watching it today it actually feels crisply relevant, a sentiment that’s only got more true with the advent of narcissistic social media. Other elements chime too, particularly the idea of a sexual encounter that doesn’t “mean anything”. Similarly, sex and love as consumer choices feels depressingly bang on, even if Ravenhill didn’t quite anticipate Tinder. Plus a portrait of a young generation desperately scrabbling for jobs and money… well, yeah, relevant. In many ways 2016 does feel like a great moment to revive the play – I just wish they’d left a little bit of the Nineties naffness in the past.

Shopping and Fucking is on until 5th November 2016 at the Lyric Hammersmith. Click here for more details. 

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Holly Williams

Holly is an freelance journalist and staff critic for What's on Stage. She was lead arts writer for the Independent on Sunday before its demise, and has since written for Time Out, The Stage, the BBC, The Observer, the TLS, Elle and The Telegraph, among others. She hails from Wales, but lives in London. There's more here: hollywrites.com.

Review: Shopping and Fucking at the Lyric Hammersmith Show Info


Directed by Sean Holmes

Written by Mark Ravenhill

Cast includes Alex Arnold, Ashley McGuire, David Moorst, Sam Spruell, Sophie Wu

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