Julia Atherley spends an evening at Empty Shop.
Shopping and F***ing is ACT’s latest production, directed by Eleri Crossland. Written by Mark Ravenhill, the play focuses around a small set of characters and their battles with substance abuse, capitalism, and relationships. People are objects to be sold; transactions take place. This play is typical of British 90’s theatre in that it confronts its audience head on and tackles topics that could make us uncomfortable just by thinking about them. It is certainly not for the easily offended and immediately places the audience in a place of insecurity and tension. Staged in Empty Shop, the production faces the challenges of putting on a show in such a basic space with limited technical options. Nonetheless, the acting was consistent, with the level of power and control needed to discuss such shocking topics. Crossland has brought Ravenhill’s production into the present day with the use of immersive videos and One Direction references, leaving the audience questioning the authenticity of relationships in an age so dominated by money and sex.
With challenging subject matters and such limited space, many actors would struggle to maintain a level of sincerity throughout a production like this. The lines required both power and tact as the conversation quickly turned from takeaways and raves to the supposed rape of an underage boy and dark sexual fantasies. Ben George, cast as Louis, managed to maintain the intense emotion required in such an intimate setting whilst also conveying an engaging energy. He delivered a standout performance in his use of humour alongside vulnerability. There was particularly poignant chemistry between Louis and Katerina Theodoridis’s character, Kendall. The power conveyed by both Richard Penney and Ed Cook, playing Harry and Simon respectively, was in tune with the overt obsession with money seen throughout the show. However, I found that both actors struggled with the range of emotions needed to convey a suitable contrast to such intense authority. Nonetheless, all the actors should be commended for their ability to engage the audience in such an oppressive place as Empty Shop. Lines which ranged from Shakespeare’s Richard III to biblical sexuality were delivered with equal consideration.
The venue itself was well suited to the gritty themes of the play and the small space forced the audience to engage with the otherwise distant subject matters. There were obvious difficulties with smooth entrances and exits as the cast had to walk down the middle aisle. However producer Grace Hogan’s deliverance of a minimal set and subtle lighting was very effective and meant that the audience could focus fully on the storyline. The use of films was a modern way of adding to the action and the play’s overt obsession with money and branding. The sexuality of the transactions which take place regularly throughout the play was reinforced by the mingling of the actors and the commercial brands which appear in these interludes. Luke Armitage’s performance in particular was strengthened by the use of projection and music. In such a small space as Empty Shop, the films were unavoidable and confrontational.
The issues faced in this play include prostitution, drug addiction, shoplifting, phone sex, slavery, and Oasis. Crossland should be praised for such a bold choice of play which is so radically different from anything else on the DST radar. Whilst the acting sometimes lacked the contrast needed to convey the gravitas of the play’s message, the overall tone of the production was one of intense urgency. If you want to see something shocking and audacious, I would urge you to head to Empty Shop to see ACT’s Shopping and F***ing. Its black humour coupled with its dark subject matter means it is certainly not an easy watch but one with which to engage and embrace.