Back after twenty years, Mark Ravenhill writes of the original production of his quote-unquote-controversial play that;
“The quickest selling performance was Valentine’s Day, packed with young couples out on a date. We received one letter of complaint…a young man from Crawley had brought his girlfriend because he’d been told the play would be like Trainspotting…but he hadn’t been told that the play included gays, so could he please have his money back?”
That original Royal Court production twenty years ago scarred me too, not for life, but at least through Christmas. As a young, recently-out-and-dying-to-be-cool Londoner, I suggested the play to my then workmates after a cursory skim of Time Out, believing it would confirm that gays were indeed arbiters of all things modish, even ones like me who didn’t initially appear so. Cut to the rimming scene ten minutes in, and the younger me was reassessing that evening’s choice, especially for the elders in our group for whom arse-licking had only ever been a metaphor.
So a revival at the Lyric in Hammersmith, despite my trauma, feels curiously overdue. There is a positive start – the cast, out of character, emerge to sell off seats on the stage to the highest bidder, ramming home the consumerist theme with the requisite absence of shame.The 90’s references are everywhere, but pleasantly so; the garish sale signs that adorn the set could have been lifted from The Works or Our Price and serve as one of several nostalgic nudges during the evening.
The main issue, for me at least, is that ten minutes in I’m actually yearning for the rimming to get a bit of peace, the scenes until that point having established little else than my contempt for the three unsympathetic protagonists; Mark is the older (but not old) predator with a fear of intimacy, a penchant for drugs and a jaded flat in which Robbie and Lulu also reside, naïve rather than dumb friends/possessions with whom he now shares little more than ready-meals after initially buying them (the friends, not the ready-meals) in a supermarket (kind of).
There are plenty of comic moments, and some of them land, though I found the frenetic pace of the dialogue meant a lot didn’t register. The humour is also largely informed by an overriding bleakness and futility, a hopeless existence where love is dead and everything is reduced to a transaction. The overall effect is of the bloke from Marathon Man giving you a clove every now and again after drilling your teeth.
The three’s abject existence is interrupted by Gary, puckishly played by David Moorst, who befriends Mark and brings him perilously close to experiencing happiness, and also by Brian, a psychopathic drug dealer played by Ashley McGuire (brilliant casting), who Robbie and Lulu end up in hock to and facing grim repercussions. The ending plays out against a desolate landscape of transactional sex, joyless drug taking and lives resigned to the absence of hope, highlighted by Mark, asking semi-rhtorically if there are any emotions left.
There is a determined effort from the production to layer some levity to the script. Frequent nudity and a soundtrack featuring The Shamen and Lemon Jelly serve to lighten the mood, and a curious but welcome diversion is the playful ending featuring a choir singing Take That, no doubt a nod to the cast being named after them. It feels completely incongruous to what’s gone before as cast members dance with the audience, but I welcomed the light relief.
Final word goes to the author, a lot of whose work I truly love:
“Did we ever give the man from Crawley his money back? No we effing didn’t.”
Shopping and Fucking plays at the Lyric Hammersmith till November 5.
To book tickets online, click here: