In the same month that Lloyds TSB undergoes a spilt to Lloyds Banking and TSB Bank, with the latter releasing this video telling its story, FanSHEN opens its Cheese [a play] in a disused office space on Oxford Street. The timing seems uncanny, as Nikki Schreiber’s play offers a take on the ongoing bank crisis here in the UK, through the medium of cheese (yes, you did read that right, cheese). It also seems fitting that a play that also takes a stab at redefining capitalism through the lens of co-operatives should open on Oxford Street during London Fashion Week, arguably a capitalist machine that encourages us to continually buy into the latest must haves on the high street, but that’s a small matter in this cheesy (sorry) story.
Set within the offices of London Mortgage Company, which is throwing a closing down party, by putting on a play written and performed by the bubbly former employees, Cheese [a play], is a witty and reflective undertaking, representing the banking crisis. The former employees Freya (Rachel Donovan), Joe (Jon Foster) and Rube (Jamie Zubairi), are amateur performers, but they deliver the first half of Cheese [a play] with throw away one-liners to the audience and terrible acting that feels cringe-worthy to watch. Ultimately that is the point; the idea of cheese being exchanged on the stock market, and cheese being not only an edible substance but representative of the economy and wealth accumulated by the 1% is cheesy to say the least. Here is where Schreiber’s play does well to represent something that often feels like only a degree in economics will give you access to.
FanSHEN’s co-directors Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe offer a piece of theatre that at first feels too throw-away, but by the end, delivers a thought-provoking and honest look at a crisis that makes us question the value of any system of worth and working, even that of co-operatives. It’s a subtle shift from wink-to-the-audience, and ‘we’re putting on a play’ to the characters immersing themselves into the work and telling a narrative. Like an onion (quite possibly the worst metaphor I’ve ever used, but it works), Cheese [a play] is made of layers that are slowly revealed. They’re translucent, which gives the audiences easy access to understanding as to what it is that FanSHEN is saying through this work. It’s not didactic but it is informative, and as we piece together information from newspapers and television programmes on how we came to be in a recession and how the spending of the banks exceeded their actual capacity, Cheese [a play] offers, for me at least, the final nugget of understanding. It doesn’t offer anything new, but it is expressed in a way that makes it easy to understand.
Perhaps a highlight beyond the narrative is Chris Gylee’s design which slowly reveals the depth of the playing space by a number of devices. In the closing moments of the play there’s a particularly fantastic reveal of the office windows that overlook the giant Primark that sits on Oxford Street. You couldn’t have wished for a better backdrop for a play about finances. Joshua Pharo’s lighting is also considerably impressive given the limitations of an office, but together with Gylee’s design there is imaginative at play.
The cast bounce around the space with an air of excitement that gives the impression that not only are they giving this play their entire commitment, but also they are having fun. It rubs off onto the audience until we, too, are beaming. Yes, the subject matter might be doom-and-gloom, but when a play uses cheese as a bridge to the financial world, you’ve got to smile. There are moments that are perhaps overstretched and could use with a dose of quickening direction, but overall Cheese [a play] is a subtle but informative play. A part of me wishes that it revealed something further, or rather, something that other plays of similar commentary have yet to achieve, but nonetheless, it is performed with spirit and merit.
Cheese [a play] is playing on Oxford Street until 28 September. For more information and tickets, see the FanSHEN website. Photo by Conrad Blakemore.