Woolworths was where I bought my first album. Now, that may not sound like a big deal in this age of instant downloads and streaming Spotify playlists, but for an 11 year old kid, it was pretty damn cool. Woolies was opposite Southport train station – pretty much the first shop you saw as you walked out of the station in fact – and the record department was right by the entrance. It soon became a monthly ritual – save up some money, hop on the train to Southport, and buy an album from Woolies. And sit on the train home, looking at your new record while eating some pick ‘n’ mix sweets.
It’s stories like that which form the basis of Sad Siren Theatre’s The Gods of Pick ‘n’ Mix, staged appropriately enough deep in the bowels of the old Woolworths store on The Moor in Sheffield. As soon as the two actors, Joe Boylan and Soraya Jane Nabipour greet the audience in the ‘foyer’ of the new Theatre Deli to lead them down into the storeroom, a ghostly, eerie atmosphere is conjured up. You’re led through a labyrinth of dusty, long-abandoned corridors, down through musty, stale-smelling staircases, until eventually arriving in the cavernous storeroom.
The piece itself is divided into four sections, with different areas of the old storeroom being utilised – first, Boylan and Nabipour read monologues about local people’s memories of the old Woolworths: they’re read verbatim using iPods, and the sight of the pair repeating the words while wearing headphones with their eyes closed is both unsettling and slightly comic. Boylan in particular sometimes seems to be possessed by the spirit of the former shoppers, capturing every last verbal tic and stammer. And it’s around this point that you realise that this is far more than a play about a store that closed down seven years ago.
For The Gods of Pick ‘n’ Mix is also an elegy about loss – the loss of community, the loss of friends, the loss of childhood. It’s a tribute to nostalgia, and a bittersweet glance back at childhood memories, as exemplified by the section in which the audience is suddenly involved in a game of Pass the Parcel (the prizes being old items once stocked by Woolworths). It’s most beautifully demonstrated in the play’s centrepiece though, in which Boylan and Nabipour tell the story of a former store employee who died shortly after Woolworths closed down: it’s a gorgeously staged segment, simply featuring the two actors wandering through fairy lights and old decorations – slowly turning a man who may have been regarded as an oddity by his peers into an all too recognisable human figure.
Finally, the audience gets a chance to tuck into some free cake and a glass of Dandelion & Burdock, as we celebrate both the life of the store employee and of Woolworths itself. Yet it’s a celebration with a very bittersweet edge, as the human cost of the Woolworths tragedy is forever on the horizon: as mentioned in the ‘museum of the financial crash’ set up in another area of the storeroom, suicide rates jumped by 9% after 2008. It’s that human cost, and the loss of memories and a very special kind of spirit that haunts you as you walk back out past the dusty, long disused changing rooms and staff kitchens.