There’s a quote from Carl Sagan which goes – ‘if you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’ The way we eat now has been formed by a myriad of physical and social changes in our world that tell us a lot about that history. While it doesn’t go quite as far back as the beginning of the universe, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s Winners uses what we eat, how it is produced, and, most importantly, how it is sold to us, to track human history. Specifically, it tells the story of capitalism through the journey from hunting wild boar to ordering burgers.
We are guided on this journey by Capitalism himself – Mr. Winner, a figure who starts off like the worst boss you’ve ever had on a team building day, and slowly transforms into a Terrible Copyright-Free Fast Food Clown. He is supported by a chorus of fast food workers who play the various figures he meets through the years, from his multiple mothers and fathers, to a seductive Queen Elizabeth I, an unimpressed Victoria, and an angry Thatcher. Through song, dance and jokes they take us from the first domestication of animals to the honing of the production line. What begins as a reasonably controlled and measured narrative keeps on accelerating until we’re in a fever dream road trip across America with Henry Ford, Elvis, the creators of redacted fast food chain
McDonald’s, and The Consumers.
The show gives a clear and cohesive overview of ideas and events that many audience members might not be familiar with, and perfectly captures the way that an individualistic ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ narrative frames not only how we see individuals, but also all of human history. Mr Winner stresses progress, and exploration, and invention, while trying to sweep the slavery, oppression, and suffering that enabled them under the carpet. We are repeatedly shown how history is twisted to be a story of the constant, beneficial climb of capitalism, ignoring anything that might take away from that narrative.
The style of Winners manages to walk a tricky line; the cheesy choreographed dances, wide smiles and smooth set pieces simultaneously create a sense of being manufactured and forced, while also being absolutely genuinely fun. It feels a little like S Club 7 by way of a corporate training video and it makes the moments where the true horror of the situation breaks in even more unsettling.
The stage (designed by Ruby Spencer Pugh) keeps the same feeling by looking a little like a children’s TV set. Bright colours, consistent stripes and a logo which looks suspiciously like some golden arches turned upside down, look a little like if disturbing YouTube puppet series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared had ever taken a trip to McDonald’s. The screens traditionally used for a fast food restaurant’s menu (which as we walk in advertise Triple Threat Burgers, and Don’t Be a Chicken Nuggets) are used throughout the show to illustrate events in a sometimes overwhelming onslaught of images and words and graphs. Perhaps the most compelling part of the stage is the semi-translucent plastic curtain which gives us little glimpses of backstage, whether that’s an argument Mr. Winner doesn’t want us to see, or Karl Marx skittering around threateningly before his big entrance.
Like many shows that chart something’s entire history, Winners comes to a difficult finale – the present. How do you conclude a show about where capitalism has been, and where it is going? Mr Winner the Horrible Clown is in meltdown, paranoid and angry and scared. The staff at his restaurant are angry and scared too, finally turning on him. What happens after this moment of violence may be too sincerely (or perhaps naively) hopeful for some, a whiplash from the frenzied cynicism of most of the show. A slow speech is shown, word by word, on the screens above the stage, talking about both the need for, and possibility of change. What saves it from incongruity from the rest of the show is the horror with which the cast looks out at the audience even while the speech seems to push for optimism. And even that optimism is sown with doubt, the assurance of ‘it’s all going to be fine’ echoing an uncertain father comforting his partner through birth earlier in the show.
And just before the lights snap off we get a horror film-esque final shot; the possibility of Mr Winner’s resurrection. Winners leaves us in the uncertainty of the present moment; is there a way to destroy a system that is all we have ever known? It has shown us how capitalism pervades our work, our lives, every meal we eat “” but the show leaves us with no easy answers to the hardest question: what comes next?
Winners runs at The Theatre on the Downs, Bristol until 28th September. More info here.