In his 20th anniversary revival of Mark Ravenhill‘s 1996 play, director Sean Holmes gives everything a price tag. Shorts, t-shirts, sofas – everything is adorned with a fluorescent pink or yellow card that marks out its value. Here, it is impossible to forget that everything can be bought.
Holmes has ramped up and intensified Ravenhill’s world, which features four young people trying to sell drugs and themselves. Mark comes out of rehab desperately searching for a relationship that he won’t be emotionally invested in – that he can buy – while his housemates Lulu and Robbie are trying to get rid of three grand’s worth of ecstasy on behalf of a God-like drug dealer called Brian. In case you hadn’t spotted it, the characters' names come from the members of Take That and their one-time collaborator Lulu. Gary is an underage prostitute, who, in a horribly graphic moment, is sexually abused by the others.
Ravenhill’s piece, which became part of the Royal Court's generation of in-yer-face plays that included Sarah Kane’s Blasted, reduces everything to a transaction. In the blur of drugs, raves, sex and consumerism we watch a society oblivious to its own implosion. Everyone onstage is obsessed with what can be bought and sold. The play holds a distorted mirror up to us and asks: what are we really reduced to when money rules everything?
There are themes that absolutely still ring true twenty years later, but Holmes’ garish production, with its use of onstage cameras that project green screen backgrounds onto a wall of TVs, is a little too obsessed with form over substance. Perhaps that is the point, but I found it hard to care about what was happening to the characters. The '90s references are there aplenty but in an attempt to place the play slightly out of its original context – it all happens in a kind of fast, furious no-place – it becomes confusing.
What Holmes does manage to do is tap into the humour, especially with little touches like the 'E Interlude' – where everyone comes onstage and dances to The Shamen – and karaoke sessions where Take That songs are screeched into a microphone. Ashley McGuire‘s Brian is hilarious as the dangerous dealer whose shark smiles are hiding a world of violence and David Moorst as the lost, empty Gary, is also very good. Holmes’ decision to involve the audience at several points throughout the piece also works and as an audience we are regularly reminded that we are complicit in this horrendous dystopian vision. It’s an uneven, often confounding and regularly unsettling night.
Shopping and F***ing runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 November.