‘Shopping and Fucking’ at The Lyric Hammersmith

I never got the chance to see Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking when it premiered at The Royal Court Theatre in 1996. But having performed in two short Ravenhill plays at The John Lyons theatre in Holborn myself (Birth of a Nation and The Mikado) I was glad I managed to see Sean Holmes’ production at The Lyric Hammersmith last Saturday.
Shopping and Fucking, as its title suggests, is concerned with consumerism and personal relationships. When the only arbiter of real value is the market, consumer choice and competition, is it any wonder that transaction replaces human emotion? In Ravenhill’s play we see Lulu (Sophie Wu) an aspiring actress, topless whilst auditioning for a shopping channel whilst Mark (Sam Spruell) a heroin addict, enters into a relationship with rent boy Gary.  We later discover that Gary, played by David Moorst, who provides much of the emotional charge to the piece, has been sexually abused by his stepdad and now wants to be sexually owned. Is this  a comment on how acts of shopping in a consumerist, late-stage capitalist society can ultimately lead to acts whereby some human beings seek to use other human beings purely as objects for their own pleasure? I am reminded of the following quote by the Dalai Lama:
‘People exist to be loved. Objects exist to be used. The world is in chaos because these things are the other way round.’
Shopping and Fucking is a darkly funny, satirical play that packs a punch. The decision to involve members of the audience was an interesting one. Right at the beginning of the show cast members give the audience an opportunity to upgrade to premier seats on stage with a bottle of Cava thrown in – all for the price of a fiver. Towards the end of the play a member of the audience is also invited to read a monologue concerning a dystopian vision of planet Earth  on stage.
Holmes’ production is fast-moving and, at times, frenetic. The performances are all engaging  and reflect characters who are adrift in a sea of consumerism, bereft of any real historical roots or values. Ashley McGuire as Brian, the seedy and rather menacing drug and porn merchant, was particularly good – a god-like/ devil figure dressed all in white who convinces Robbie that the first few words in the Bible were not ‘In the beginning…’ but rather ‘Get. The Money. First.’
Some have called this type of theatre ‘the theatre of urban ennui’ or ‘in yer face theatre’. There is much unapologetic sex and violence in Shopping and Fucking and it is littered with references from popular culture. However there is also a real sense that many of the characters are trying to break free from this fragmented and broken world. They are searching for meaning and an authentic emotional connection with each other – however misguided their efforts may be. This quest for meaning and connection may result in an epiphany about the state of the world as when Robbie (Alex Arnold) talks about some kid in Rwanda, a poverty-stricken granny in Kiev, and being blissed out on ecstasy – all in one breath. Or, more disturbingly, it may manifest in the release of certain body fluids on stage – particularly blood – as when Mark lurches centre stage in the middle of rimming Gary’s arse and spits blood.
The quest for meaning in a postmodern world, where the grand narratives from the past are redundant, is also succinctly expressed when Robbie tells Gary about his view of the world:
‘I think a long time ago there were big stories. Stories so big you could live your whole life in them. The Powerful Hands of the Gods and Fate. The Journey to Enlightenment. The March of Socialism. But they all died or the world grew up or grew senile or forgot them, so now we’re making up our own stories. Little stories.’
My generation grew up under the shadow of Thatcher and Reagan. Shopping and Fucking is a reflection of a society where Thatcher had the gall to remark that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and there are families.’ That was bad enough. Twenty years on from when Shopping and Fucking was first performed, the American people have now elected former reality TV host of Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump, to be president of the United States. Suffice it to say his views on individual women and women in general have been widely reported. I will not repeat them here.
Shopping and Fucking may have completed its run at The Lyric Hammersmith but in an increasingly acquisitive consumerist society, where reality TV and the maxim ‘I shop therefore I am’ still holds sway, it is more relevant than ever.

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