Half Cut’s Shelf Life wants to show us the ‘meaninglessness of life in all its glory’ – but it isn’t ever absurd enough to live up to its premise.
The production takes place in the old BBC building in Marylebone, the current home of the itinerant theatre company, Theatre Delicatessen. They specialises in taking over abandoned buildings in surprising locations; their Theatre Souk, in 2010, took place in the similarly dilapidated Uzbekistan Airlines headquarters just off Oxford Street and this new space has already played host to an immersive production of Henry V.
At the start of Shelf Life, each of us is given a balloon to personalise and hold onto and a ‘passport’ in which our personality traits will be recorded by the actors we meet on our individual journeys. We move through the building floor by floor, starting in a basement impressively decorated with glittering tubes and emerging onto the first floor through a fabric entrance which resembles a giant vagina.
We’re made to ascend more stairs before we finally arrive in a classroom where our ‘life course’ is set for the rest of the production. The audience is divided into different sets of students, who are then subjected to an acerbic commentary on the lack of career options after education. This process continues in a makeshift recruitment centre, where consultants suggest we abandon our dream careers for mundane office jobs. It’s political and astute, but this initial sharpness soon disappears, to be replaced by a jovial desperation to keep the audience engaged amid the confusion.
It feels like there are only a few performers holding it together, especially when the audience groups eventually converge. These performers work enthusiastically with very flimsy material, and a tight running schedule. Some of the improvised set pieces are cut short as the production builds towards its finale. A few scenes stand out, but that’s largely down to the chemistry between the audience and performers. A marriage ceremony hints at the beginnings of a storyline but this is swiftly dropped and the audience are encouraged to dance to ABBA instead. Each scene is so rushed that the promenading is pointless; it’s hard to become absorbed in the world they’ve created while being shuttled so rapidly from room to room.
We’re finally led out onto the roof, from where we can see the BT tower in close range. We let go of our balloons, and the scattering of white smudges against the dark sky look so gorgeous that no-one takes out a camera phone, for fear of obscuring the image with a flash. It quells the growing sense of dissatisfaction, at least momentarily, but the production as a whole feels far too short and fragmentary. A few audience members seem confused as to whether that was actually just the end of the first half of the performance.
To their credit, the building is used effectively at some points, particularly in the beginning and during the final sombre descent of the stairs. However, the company seem to expect the setting to do a lot of the work. We do get the point that life is messy, and often meaningless, but the production fails to make that a liberating truth. It feels like a lot of work for little result.