Shopping and F***ing at the Lyric Hammersmith
Part of the pleasure in seeing something that has gained a reputation for being shocking is testing whether time has inured us to the supposed unpleasantness, or whether the work can still inspire a gasp. Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing ostensibly fits this bill perfectly, even if the playwright himself disagrees. And while this new production at the Lyric Hammersmith doesn’t quite confirm the rarely revived play’s timelessness, it does suggest that the theatrical class of the 1990s hasn’t completely lost its edge in the intervening decades.
On a set that looks like something from post-watershed Channel 4 in the mid-90s, Alex Arnold’s Robbie and Sophie Wu’s Lulu fall afoul of drug dealer-cum-motivational speaker Brian, an alternatingly intimidating and reassuring Ashley McGuire. This while Sam Spruell’s Mark tries to avoid anything more than a sexual transaction with Gary, a young male prostitute played with heartbreaking kineticism by David Moorst.
It’s often hard to care what is happening on stage – then director Sean Holmes produces some AV trickery or audience interaction and everyone is dragged back on board, like TV channel hoppers who briefly pause on something interesting. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Shopping, more a reflection on the kind of atmosphere Ravenhill and Holmes create. The artifice of the entire piece is enhanced by the presence of the green screen, video of which is plastered all over the stage, sandwiching lyrics to the 90s greatest hits between neon-drenched pornography and QVC-style shopping segments.
Compare this production to Katie Mitchell’s version of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed for the National Theatre earlier this year and Shopping and F***ing doesn’t appear to have aged that well. Post social media (and shows like Black Mirror) the kind of consumerist, debauched, empty existence Ravenhill seems keen to capture comes across a bit quaint. That may be a bit of an odd complaint for a play that is balls to the wall sex, drugs and, if not rock ‘n’ roll, then naff karaoke. Yet the way it is presented and the themes it addresses frame it as a period piece. That move may be intentional on Holmes’s part, but one can’t help but feel it robs the play of a vitality that Mitchell’s Cleansed had in abundance.
It is perhaps unfair, however, to compare the works of Ravenhill and Kane, as well as the productions of Holmes and Mitchell. For though the playwrights’ early output has been posthumously grouped together as part of the “in-yer-face” movement, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Kane’s work, especially in the hands of Mitchell, is a visceral howl; Ravenhill’s play, on the other hand, becomes sticky with damaged irreverence thanks to Holmes’s playful direction, one that does hurt, if only in spurts.
Photos: Helen Murray
Shopping and F***ing is at the Lyric Hammersmith from 7th October until 5th November 2016. Book your tickets here.