Shopping and F***ing is one of those fiercely British plays from the turbulent 90s, full of sex, violence, blood and drug use and is unabashedly controversial. Yet, behind the rage and fury lies a pertinent storyline that reflects some serious social issues and concerns.
Receiving new direction from Sean Holmes, Shopping and F***ing highlights the transactional nature of our modern relationships and our treatment of money, with all around fantastic performances from the five skilled cast members. In short, Shopping and F***ing follows two parallel storylines – recovering drug addict Mark (Sam Spruell) enters a transactional relationship with Gary (David Moorst), a rent boy with a troubled history, while a young couple Mark has previously purchased, aspiring actress Lulu (Sophie Wu) and idealistic Robbie (Alex Arnolds of Skins), attempt to make money off selling drugs for kingpin Brian (a terrifying, yet often laugh out loud funny Ashley McGuire).
Ravenhill’s script is deliciously dark and rife with black humour, imagining a dystopic nightmare Britain where the pound is the ultimate overlord, key to building civilization and exerting a tight control over emotions. Despite celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Shopping and F***ing remains prophetically relevant, reminiscent of an episode of Black Mirror, a warning of the future to come. Its main characters are all fundamentally flawed, at the mercy of
Holmes’ vision for the script is somewhat hit and miss, deciding to deviate from its intimate beginnings into large scale, technicolour camp that borders on the vulgar (not necessarily a bad thing, given the mood of the play). Elements of audience participation have been added to the performance, where viewers are invited to make actual purchases of beer and chocolate during interludes, and at one point even invited onstage to dance with the cast members. Although fun and entertaining to watch, the audience elements and occasional karaoke numbers do more to detract from the focus of the play rather than add to it, ending up becoming spectacle without substance. However, where Holmes does succeed is in the well-used set of screens, live camera feed and greenscreen to create an all new atmosphere emphasising the play’s themes of emptiness and voyeurism, with the camera trained on actors in various scenes to create a sort of augmented reality for the audience, often layering a sense of desolate hopelessness and inescapability on top of the already bleak writing. One particularly good use of the screens was when Robbie and Lulu are doing online camera shows to make money, allowing for audiences to really zoom in on their actions, as if they were truly watching a live internet show (to which Lulu comments ‘Why are there so many sad people in the world?’, while counting out their earnings)
Much of the play’s success is owed to the utter commitment of its cast to their roles. The demanding roles often sees them running around the stage, high on emotion and energy, with characters force feeding another, simulated sex and ecstasy-induced raves. Ravenhill’s characters are believable enough to imagine real life counterparts of – driven to desperation, broken by the failure to achieve their desires to bypass the system. Each actor brought out the subtle nuances of their character to leave each one likable and understandable in their own way to the audience.
Overall, this is not an easy play to watch. It will make you uncomfortable, disturbed and question the way you live your life. This is not a happy play, and if anything, it’s an angry one. Shopping and F***ing is a haunting, feverish riot that slams our capitalist and ‘money first’ culture facedown in the mud, a terrifying look at how far people are willing to go for cash and how that cash shapes and corrupts us, and leaves us dead, either literally or emotionally. Come for the entertainment value, stay for the message. Apart from the few directional missteps, this production of Shopping and F***ing is a worthy revival that still manages to jolt audience members into being wary of the people we’re at risk of becoming in an increasingly hopeless world.