A battered transit van drives with a bang through a "Labour Isn't Working" Tory election campaign poster onto the huge Olivier stage. Cocky young men spill out and to the intensifying strains of "Relax" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood they erect the frame of a shoe stall, swinging on the bars like show-off monkeys.
Welcome to the mid-1980s and to Romford Market, hotbed of working-class Thatcherism and rude microcosm of the aspirational spirit of the times. Market Boy - a show developed over four years in occasional workshops by dramatist David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris - shows us this world through the eyes of Boy (the excellent Danny Worters), a shy teenager who lands a part-time job flogging shoes on the stall run by the market's sexy black resident Lothario, wittily portrayed by Gary McDonald.
The protagonist's rite of passage from innocent boy to disillusioned young man is mapped against the country's own journey from the boom of the late 80s to the recession of the early 90s. But if it's ultimately a morality tale, there is nothing in the least preachy about Rufus Norris's highly engaging production in which 30 actors playing over 50 roles create a vitalising sense of the anything-goes energy and euphoria of the period. Mrs Thatcher's periodic cartoon-like appearances as the acclaimed mythic heroine visiting her heartland have a loopy comic charm. In one, taking a Sooty-like magic wand from her handbag, she conjures up the Christmas lights and leads a rendition of "Something in the Air". The Boy's hair-raising initiation into lewd sexual traditionsthe teeming gallery of types are captured with droll assurance.
The drawback in the first half is that unlike, say, Ben Jonson's comparable Jacobean comedy, Bartholomew Fair, with its contrast between traders and Puritans, the play doesn't rustle a plot or clash of values. When a Labour candidate dares to show his face, he's pelted with produce by the entire market.
In the second half, as the dream dies, there's some nice ironic patterning with earlier scenes, but the show still feels wonderfully theatrical without being sufficiently dramatic. It's an exhilarating piece of stage-craft, though, at its best in scenes such as that in which the Meat Man (Jonathan Cullen) becomes a national demagogue as he hymns the explosion of commodities purchasable in Thatcher's Britain to a chorus of Union Jack-waving, "Land-of-Hope-and-Glory"-singing marketeers. And there's a nice puckish prophecy about life under New Labour at the end. Tricking us into nostalgia (with the 80s pop hits) before bringing us back to our senses, the show blows a juicy kiss to the 80s through a V-sign.
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