Entering Shelf Life through a giant vagina, you know at once that this show does not shy away from the ridiculous. Shelf Life is a new immersive promenade show from young company HalfCut – and it starts as it means to go on.
A real strength of Shelf Life, and clearly an ethos of the company, is its sense of the absurd. There are some wonderful moments – from each audience member’s ‘birth’ through the six foot vagina to the wistful, slightly threatening glimpses of a woman in black scrubs holding a bunch of black balloons. Each journey through this show is different, which is both a strength and a weakness. For all the moments that I loved, there were probably as many that I missed. It’s a nice metaphor that in this show, as in life, you have to make your own way.
A major problem with the piece was that it promised much more than it actually delivered. There is a very real thrill of excitement when, for example, the audience is divided into different types of people upon leaving school (scientists, sportsmen, artists, etc.) but this seems to have little effect on the rest of the journey. Perhaps this is partly a parallel drawn with real life: being captain of the school football team usually does very little to determine what you become in life, but in a 90-minute compression of a potential 90 years, it feels like it should have greater significance. Frustratingly, there were many moments like this.
Another issue, which is often problematic in immersive pieces, was the ratio of audience members to performers. For me, the ideal recipe is 2:1 or at most 3:1 of audience to actor. Here, the cast was uniformly strong (stand-outs included Neil Connolly and a mysterious man called Rob who isn’t in the programme), but there were only nine of them. With an audience of – at a guess – over a hundred, they have given themselves a very difficult task. While the environment and quick, catapulting changes are stimulating, there are inevitable lulls (even moments of boredom), as the cast cannot be expected to be everywhere at once.
The real star of this show is its space. Marylebone Gardens, once home to the BBC London recording studios, is a weird and slightly sinister warren of rooms, glass doors, staircases and out of order lifts. HalfCut transform it beautifully (designer Katharine Heath does a great job on a shoe string) but use only a fraction of it. New residents Theatre Delicatessen have got their hands on something very exciting here.
Shelf Life purports to show us the ‘meaninglessness of life in all its glory’, and there is a certain satisfaction to the disconnected route you follow, with other discombobulated audience members; sometimes wearing hardhats, sometimes getting married or dancing to Rick Astley. However, in this rattle through the meaninglessness and glory of life, this show is somewhat lacking in substance. It is a reflection of the relative youth of the cast that almost nothing happens after ‘buying a house’ before ‘death’. Some of the ideas are a little undercooked, and might, with more time, develop into a much more satisfying show. As it stands, it is more a sequence of semi-connected images and experiences, some shining, subtle, and bizarre; some less exciting.
The show is populated with the absurd and the beautiful: an image of a student in a bear costume lipstick-kissing a balloon, or the quiet, disconnected waving of hospital staff as you leave the building both stand out. The ending is also wistful, simple and striking – look out for the end of the show, it’s great and takes place on a roof top looking out London. Shelf Life is by no means perfect, but (as with most immersive work) you get out what you put in. If that’s your thing – and you fancy coming out of the six foot vagina – go.
Shelf Life runs from 16th October – 10th November at 7pm and 8.30pm at Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High Street. For more information and tickets, please visit the Theatre Delicatessen website. Photo by Richard Preston.