Maison Foo’s follow up to their gentle 2010 hit Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin is an angrier beast which takes great chunks out of the retail industry’s shiny scales and grim underbelly. Underneath the shiny counters and perfume spray there’s something deeply rotten about department stores; mostly down in the stockroom. The company mix fairy stories, puppetry, accordion songs and consumerist fable to take on the deserving target of slave labour and capitalism run riot; an approach that’s slightly too chaotic to lay the beast to rest.
The plot flips erratically, like a toddler turning sticky cardboard pages, between the present, slickly soulless Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium, and a kind of fairytale history of department-store capitalism, told through the merged and mashed up stories of the Elves and the Shoemaker and The Old Women Who Lived In A Shoe. The present is all capitalist compound nouns -flashsales, storecards, makeovers; the cast slickly target an amused audience with tie-pushing, lipstick-wielding salesmanship and rapid fire comedy. The less compelling past is told by a pre-recorded storybook narrative, cued up on a dictaphone by a mute accordion player. It describes the shoemaker-turned-store-owner’s progression from hapless artisan to slave-driver, running roughshod over subtlety with the help of magical elves that are really howling, trembling babies.
The play comes at a great time — just as a series of reports in the Observer have slightly shaken, but not rocked the fashion industry’s complacent attitude to outsourcing labour. Its fairy stories are a perfect fit for the consumerist whirl of cheap clothes, and the elves a nicely tailored metaphor for the happy labourers that its in (almost) everyone’s best interest to imagine. The playful setting makes full use of the potential of bags, counters and boxes to hide secrets, of fun reversals and switches from register to register. Still, the relationship between the different stories it tells is often confused. The characters at Pendulums are unashamed caricatures, creating the atmosphere of a shambolic pantomime, with not quite enough jokes to keep things fizzing. Blood Brothers’ ‘Easy Terms’ is such a perfect evocation of a married woman beseiged by the bargains she makes, for her baby and for the furniture she buys on the ‘never never’. It’s unfair to expect the same emotional intensity here, but having both the shoemaker and his wife ‘played’ by dummies means there’s no place to put their turmoil, just a polystyrene head.
It often feels like there’s not enough political theatre at the Fringe, especially when there’s such a rich sewer of material to draw on. Maison Foo have created a show that’s a mixture of exhilarating and frustrating. They’ve allowed their own avowed frustration at throwaway culture, and at the empty solutions of fairy tales, to dominate a show that has a lot to say, but doesn’t quite bite as hard as it might.
The shoemaker, the craftsman who could be the emphatic centre of this chaotic consumerist muddle, is just a disembodied voice on a dictaphone. No amount of salesmen’s magic can make us feel his torment.