It has become something of a cliche to comment on how plays from yesteryear are as prescient and relevant as ever, but this smart and stylish revival of Mark Ravenhill’s renowned 1996 masterpiece really is.
Interaction becomes transaction as this piece giddily explores the price that humanity pays for its obsession with sex and money – often blurring the line between that enslaving pair of preoccupations. Before the play even starts the audience is flogged merchandise by the cast, seating upgrades are auctioned off, and a cash donation is required to kick off the action.
The tone is surreal, hyper-stylised, and utterly compelling. Incorporation of multi-media sequences, including green-screen technology, karaoke sessions, and a 90s flashback-inducing ‘Ecstasy Interlude’, somehow give the impression of watching a real-life cartoon. Some fairly hefty subjects are covered – child-rape, drug-dealing, murder – but, for the most part, the glossy sheen of production preposterousness deliberately prevents us from fully engaging with this material on an accordingly emotional level. Much as central character Mark erects psychological barriers to ensure that any sexual interaction is as meaningless as possible, the show puts up similar barricades between the audience and the truth of the characters’ suffering.
Nudity, live-rimming, and something unspeakable done with a knife have gifted this text a reputation for being ‘shocking’, but there’s an air of inevitability that somehow prevents the horror from fully hitting home. Ravenhill himself admits that any scandalous notoriety is largely a myth – even the original 90s audiences were already comfortably familiar with such shock-tactics, and as cynical citizens of 2016 we’re even less likely to be outraged by such outré opprobrium. What we do feel, though, is the disconnect and ennui that has come with the commercialisation of our lives – we end up shocked by our own inability to be shocked.
A superb cast lead us through this merciless moral maze. Sam Spruell as Mark is brimming with life as his character squanders it – a darkly endearing portrait of a recovering addict who relies entirely on interaction with others for his own sense of self. Ashley McGuire delivers a powerful performance as Brian, alternating effortlessly between winsomely wise and utterly bloody terrifying. With fingers in many pies, this character is perhaps the closest thing that this reality has to a God. Divine.
Sophie Wu and Alex Arnold are adorable as the young pair of walking disasters who end up having to prostitute themselves to avoid a sticky end, after an attempt at drug dealing goes horribly wrong. And there’s a standout performance from David Moorst as Gary – the teenage rent boy who has, perhaps, the saddest story of all. Moorst dextrously papers over the cracks in his broken character with infectious joie de vivre and cheeky humour that endlessly enthrals, until we have our hearts slightly broken when his truth is revealed.
Shopping and F***ing is as entertaining as ever, and this fresh interpretation brings a new edge of madness to a coyly seductive classic. A hypnotic hellscape that’s been brought to life with fiery and fanciful flare. F***ing marvellous.
GT gives Shopping & F***ing at the Lyric Hammersmith — 4/5