“I fell asleep during that one and dreamt about a woman giving birth to a pile of clothes,” my friend confesses, feeling a little the worse for wear after our last show of Latitude’s Sunday evening. No, I tell her, that happened. It’s certainly one of the stranger moments of Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium, a nightmarish Brechtian critique of western consumer culture that also features elves, shop mannequins and huge moving set pieces. It’s agit-prop with a lot of props, plus comedy, puppetry and a multi-role-ing cast.
Maison Foo’s surreal and epic play is inspired by the Brother’s Grimm’s story, The Elves and the Shoemaker, in which, you might remember, a poor cobbler makes a fortune thanks to his shoes apparently making themselves overnight. He has no idea where the help is coming from, until he and his wife discover the nocturnal visits of some rather handy sewing elves. Maison Foo re-imagines the tale on a set that resembles a department store (think Are You Being Served?), where it plays out as the history of a modern corporation built largely on profit from labour outsourced to near slave-like conditions. This story you will know well, though you may like to pretend you don’t. Through some imaginative, if not entirely cohesive, stage-craft and cutting parody of customer service jargon (“Would madam like to try our ethical range? A tie for sir?”), the company largely succeed in humorously tackling corporate greed while exposing our insatiable appetite for unnecessary crap at knock-down prices.
The format, however, is confusing at times and its episodic structure can lead to disengagement rather than the desired verfremdungseffekt. The plot also gets a little convoluted towards the end; did the elves really have to be the offspring of the old woman who lived in a shoe? I’ll admit I was lost at that point. The best scenes are the comic ones, particularly when a stockroom worker, a “sadly single ugly duckling”, is given a brilliantly tacky makeover in the manner of a shopping channel segment. The songs work well too, as an advertising jingle descends into a repeated, disturbing chorus of “we need”. A promising and even important piece, then, that will no doubt become further refined over the course of its Edinburgh run (details below). Props to Maison Foo for this chilling reminder to stay awake, and to remember that the markets should exist to serve us, not the other way round.
Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium is currently playing at the Pleasance King Dome, 4.20pm, 31 July – 24 August, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information and tickets see the Edinburgh Fringe website.