Shopping and Fucking

Shopping and Fucking

Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking hit British theatre like a punch from an angry junkie. Twenty years later it’s been revived at the Hammersmith Lyric. Can it still pack a slap and strike a nerve?

British theatre experiences sporadic, establishment-baiting spurts of creativity that throw a welcome punch at the status quo. Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking is a prime example of a dramatic throwdown. The play was provocative howl from the stage, joined in dramatic fury by a number of young and kicking ‘90s playwrights.

Sarah Kane’s Blasted, The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley and Mojo by Jez Butterworth were all hailed as examples of ‘in-yer-face theatre’- a term coined by British theatre critic Aleks Sierz.  Considering the era and ethos of the time, those works might have been dubbed ‘off-your-face theatre’. And yes, I do speak for myself.

Shopping and Fucking publicity poster

It was Shopping and Fucking in 1996 that promised the biggest buzz for this theatrical thrill seeker, as it was penned by a queer author and featured contemporary gay characters. On the national tour, the production starred a young Charlie Condue, long before Corrie or Nathan Barley beckoned.

I’d been friends with Charlie for a few years, but this was the first opportunity to see him on stage. Not only that, it was in a show that featured bags of ecstasy, gratuitous sex and a cast of characters named after members of Take That. There was a lot to love.

Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill

Kick drums and pills

During this time, I was also experiencing guilt with regards to my younger brother James. He’d lost his hearing through meningitis and while I was hailed as the ‘ringmaster of London’s gay party scene’ by the Evening Standard, James was living at home, battling depression.

I took him out clubbing, but have long understood that kick drums and pills can only offer short comfort. In an effort to expand our social repertoire beyond gurning at mirrorballs, I took my brother to see Shopping and Fucking at Richmond Theatre.

Shopping and Fucking publicity poster

Tricky lip quibble

James is never gonna be a thespian, but he loves pop culture and art that’s punk in spirit, which Shopping and Fucking has in barrels. Despite a miraculous cochlear implant and a seat close to the stage, he struggled to follow the dialogue.

Lip reading works best when someone’s spitting distance from your face, but widen the distance or put them in profile and it’s almost a lost cause. James struggled with the plot, but we’d enjoyed a social engagement somewhere other than a filthy rave.  It was progress, of sorts.

Alex Arnold as Robbie in Shopping and Fucking and the Lyric Hammersmith

Alex Arnold as Robbie

Fraternal flashback

When I heard the Hammersmith Lyric were reviving Mark Ravenhill’s sensational play, it became a must-see priority and there was only one person who should join me.  James wasn’t keen at first, but understood my sentimental urge to pick at old scabs and complete the 2-decade cycle of Ravenhill.

We met at Wetherspoons on King Street and over a pint, discussed nitrous oxide addiction, the cost of Ibiza and being sectioned under the mental health act.  We were like a one-act play called Sipping and Drugging.

Sophie Wu as Lulu and Alex Arnold in Shopping and Fucking

Sophie Wu as Lulu and Alex Arnold

Rave and rent boys

Shopping and Fucking centres around a smack addict called Mark (Sam Spruell) who lives with Lulu (Sophie Wu) and Robbie (Alex Arnold).  It’s a dysfunctional threesome that seems entirely devoid of love. They each experience a moral breakdown via a diet of hedonism, greed and a lack of spiritual integrity.

They aren’t particularly likeable and one watches dispassionately as they’re forced to learn lessons the hard way, via a damaged rent boy called Gary (David Moorst) and a messianic, menacing drug dealer (Ashley McGuire).

Ashley McGuire as Brian in Shopping and Fucking

Ashley McGuire as Brian

Agony and ecstasy

Director Sean Holmes has devised the action on a multi-media set that’s like the bastard child of the Big Breakfast and Supermarket Sweep. Like McDonalds, it lures you in with bright lights and zippy colours, but soon gives way to a headache and a need to escape. Green screens are used brilliantly to create scenes such as Robbie and Lulu desperately simulating sex acts on chatline TV.

It’s grimly amusing, but far from cheering. The doomed duo are reduced to selling their souls and bodies ’cause Robbie gave away £3k’s worth of E to hot boys at a rave. That is SO ‘90s- the very epitome of a smiley face that turned into a frown.

smiley faces

Damaged and deadly

The cast is strong, but rather left in the shade by David Moorst as Gary. He brings a sad, urgent humanity to his portrayal of an abused child who’s grown into a cold but chipper sex worker. Ashley McGuire is also excellent as the gangster king pin, delivering dubious wisdoms with a commanding stage presence.

It should be noted that the Hammersmith Lyric were brilliantly helpful, polite and jolly when it came to managing my brother’s disability. Both their theatres have a Sennheiser infra-red audio enhancement system and their Visitor Services team were quick to sort us out a headset and copy of the text. For certain performances they also provide Open Captions (like subtitles) and British Sign Language interpreted shows.

David Moorst as Gary in Shopping and Fucking

David Moorst as Gary

Techno darkness

I had the time of my life in the ‘90s and this play proved a sobering slap back then. Of course, I viewed it as an abstract satire on rampant consumerism and hollow ambitions.  I certainly didn’t see it as a harsh skewering of my lifestyle choices.

On reflection, that’s exactly what it was and it remains so to this day.  This 2016 production proves an edifying flashback and offers an enlightening window to millennials who missed the ‘90s, but inherited its cultural dregs.

Shopping and Fucking captured a moment in time and nailed it, but it looks almost quaint in an age of Brexit, crystal meth, sex apps, smartphone porn and GHB. Ravenhill held up a grimy mirror in ‘96, but we didn’t learn from our ghastly reflection, we just looked straight ahead, quickened our step and made the world an even darker place for the next generation.

 

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