Shopping and F***ing, Lyric theatre, Hammersmith, review: A high-energy, go-for-broke production

Too often the performances feel like frenetic demonstrations rather than lived experience

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The Independent Culture

Shopping and F***ing: the title that launched a thousand asterisks. The law may not allow advertisements to accord the piece its full, uncensored name. It’s a decidedly different matter, though, inside the reconfigured auditorium of the Lyric, Hammersmith where Sean Holmes is mounting this headlong, full-out 20th anniversary revival of Mark Ravenhill's in-yer-face debut. The play achieved notoriety because of the explicitness of its bleak, blackly comic take on a generation of disconnected twentysomethings for whom sex is a commercial transaction and shopping (or shop-lifting) the real turn-on. Holmes’s account attempts to up the ante. There's a layer of awkwardly handled meta-satire here that draws attention to the play itself as a commodity whose relationship with the audience is predicated on the exchange of hard cash. The ushers and actors, in brand-named T-shirts, attempt to peddle “Shopping and F***ing” badges. Two premium seats and “a bottle of real cava” are auctioned off for a fiver. Sam Spruell’s Mark demands a coin from a punter which, once dropped into a Perspex collection box, sets the play in motion. The cast strip to underwear that, like all the other items in this show, is still price-tagged.  

The production sometimes put me in mind of what you might get if you were to team Brecht with a producer of QVC shopping telly. It has a high-energy, go-for-broke quality that I ended up admiring as it plunges you into a world where everything is pointedly mediated. This may be through technology. There’s the live webcam titillation (hilariously suggestive interference with fruit) purveyed by Robbie (Alex Arnold) and Lulu (Sophie Wu) as they struggle to pay off a £3000 debt to a brutal drug dealer for all the tablets of Ecstasy that Robbie gave away in a fit of zonked idealism in a nightclub. Or through the deliberate alienation devices in the direction – the fact, say, that the role of the dealer, Brian, a thug at once sinister and repellently sentimental, has been assigned to a female actor (the excellent Ashley McGuire).  

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Alex Arnold as Robbie in Shopping and F***ing (Helen Murray)

The trouble, though, is that, too often, the performances feel like frenetic demonstrations of the characters rather than lived experience, even by the standards of theatre that might rightly want to deter the falsity of mawkish identification. This is a play in which Mark, the recovering addict, wonders whether there are any feelings left that haven’t been chemically induced and defensively fights shy of emotional commitment to the teenage rent-boy Gary (David Moorst). Escaped from a sexually abusive stepdad, Gary has ultimately fatal fantasies of what he wants from a strong father-figure. It's ironic, then, that this production makes it so hard to care about these figures. The droll green screen sequences, the assault and battery of the video images, the colour-saturated porn, the pulsing techno-music – all of it, conjured up with great aplomb, is most effective, to my mind, in arousing false expectations, largely dying away for the really salutary shock of the production’s sudden quiet reversion to the ancient Greek practice of off-stage violence in depicting the hideous climactic action. This leaves you shattered to the core.

Holmes is a gifted director who staged the most brilliantly judged revival I have seen of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Though no one could accuse the present show of lacking the courage of its convictions, I’m not sure that he performs an equivalent service for Ravenhill’s play.  

To November 5;  020 8741 6850

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