In Paradise Now!, ambition is naked and it’s smelling good. This dark comedy about multi-level marketing has the punning fun with “essential oils” you’d hope. Both writer Margaret Perry and director Jaz Woodcock-Stewart have had great work on at the Bush before; this first collaboration together, with its bustlingly full set and running time of two hours and 45 minutes, is an unusual but welcome beast here.
Perry turns a clever eye to the eroticism of selling in an early scene where Gabriel (Michele Moran) is seduced into Paradise, an essential oils business aimed with empowerment-disguised positivity by women, at women. The unseen “She-E-O” designates it a “Fempire”. It’s a new world to Gabriel: she hasn’t tried anything in a long time. She spends her days quietly at home. The belief Alex (Shazia Nicholls) seems to have in her, that she can really sell this product, is enough to awaken something long dormant. What if she wants to succeed?
Great fun is had with the tension between competition and unity: as you’d expect, loneliness makes characters great prey for Paradise, but real, though shaky, companionship is found there too. Where do you find the line in the monetisable sand when selling to people online? While Carla (Ayoola Smart) hacks away at Paradise in lieu of a career as a TV presenter, lip synching to Drake and building those followers, her girlfriend Anthie (Annabel Baldwin) takes a more traditional tack, running to audition after audition, disappointment after disappointment.
The first time they hook up is while Carla’s roommate cries in the next room. “How do you know her?” Anthie asks; “I don’t really,” is the answer. Carla’s new to London from Cork and thought it would all be less of a struggle by now. At the heart of the play is a criticism of the indignity of all work, brilliantly illustrated by Gabriel’s sweet but solid sister Baby (Carmel Winters), who tells a story about a chair at her department store job which she isn’t allowed to sit in, lest she looks like she isn’t busy.
Each actor gets their moment to wring hearts or conquer. Nicholls’ hilarious Alex, who brings the other women in, is a breathy, vital go-getter who positively trembles with will, her every furious glance visible from the moon. Trawling through Facebook for connections to recruit into Paradise, she reels in Laurie (Rakhee Thakrar), who she barely remembers from school. Thakrar plays Laurie like a frayed edge, all uncoordinated limbs and no filter: she needs Paradise to work for her, but it’s this very desperation which seems to scupper her efforts.
Moran and Winters’ scenes as the sisters Gabriel and Baby are a delight – still recovering from (though not talking about) Gabriel’s lowest period the year before. The dynamic is cosy but mature: they’re life partners, with all the serious love and pain that entails.
There are echoes of Woodcock-Stewart’s much-beloved Civilisation in this production’s thoughtful populating and emptying of space, and spells of dance. In moments without dialogue, characters are often together onstage, alone but overlapping in their activities, maybe animated by a similar faith. Rosie Elnile’s design extrapolates all the play’s locations out from the cheap wooden panelling of the hotel setting of Paradise Now, the scheme’s annual conference, with stage managers and actors tirelessly moving furniture and manipulating doors and panels.
It’s a tremendously busy and demanding approach which allows for all kinds of surprises (bowling, to spoil but one) though it does contribute to a squashed feeling, especially with the stage set up end-on. It’s far more common to see main house Bush productions in the round, and some lines and details are lost for those seated furthest away from the action.
Alex Fernandes’ wise lighting expands the world out with plush gorgeous colour, and uses an awesome, sun-like glow to achieve a sense of unearthly pleasure when Laurie essentially ODs on oils, slumped and stinking (she’s fine). The costumes throughout are smartly conceived by design associate Hazel Low and made by Ruth Best: when Moran as Gabriel, beaming and with her hair down, comes out to lead a dance in her carefully-chosen pink suit for Paradise Now, it makes the heart kick.
There’s a shimmery score by Jasmin Kent Rodgman, as well as lots of pop needledrops, which together with Sung Im Her’s movement direction (big shapes, often balletic for Anthie, a dancer) gives us the gift of Baldwin dancing to “Immaterial” by SOPHIE.
The plot doesn’t take its characters to many unexpected places (besides that outsiders Anthie and Baby aren’t the ones to put up challenges about Paradise) and speeds through some arcs, but though the play feels slightly unwieldy, it’s also a blast: confidently energetic and quiet in turn.