Review: Fulfilment, Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe

A family of black plastic totes litter the stage, their red mouths garish. Three actors (Claire Parry, Phoebe Hyder, Ronan Cullen) wrench at the teeth of a crate, pulling a puppet from inside. Meet Robox, our “personal fulfilment device”. Its body and extremities are made largely out of cardboard boxes, its limbs of paper springs. Despite sporting only a pair of unblinking eyes, it has an open, friendly face. Created by Jimmy Grimes, Robox could almost be a cousin of the famous Pixar lamp, Luxo Jr. 

Conceived by Kezia Cole and Richard Hay, Fulfilment is a creative response to the mysteries that take place behind the closed doors of Amazon Fulfilment Centres. Robox is a metaphor for the same stamp used by the tech giant – the consumer wants it, and Robox delivers. The audience also play a part in personalizing the device, through playful exercises focused around desire and convenience. 

Encounters with Robox are interspersed with verbatim testimonials from actual Amazon employees, along with accounts made by the creative team (some of whom went undercover, posing as hopeful job candidates in the making of the piece). From the offset, there is sterile sense of disdain for the well-being of potential – and existing – staff members. An entrance exam is soon met by a spontaneous drugs test, hurdles squeezed into shape through highly-pressurized language, as well as a contempt for the small print.

At first, Robox struggles to stand, like a new-born colt. It is excitable, with its tone verging on hysterical. Though it is controlled by the increasingly exhausted cast members, its energy never seems to wane. Robox’s temperament means that, despite the suffering of the performers, the audience remain hypnotised throughout. While it compiles wish lists based on our ‘perfect moments’, Amazon workers speak of the cruel conditions in which they are forced to labour. With warehouses stretching around 700,00 square ft, some can walk around 11 miles per day. Only one half-hour lunch break and two 15-minute breaks are allocated across shifts (unpaid),  with most not drinking water so as to avoid having to visit the loo. 

These monologues are relentless, with the employees’ day-to-day schedule dictated by the absurd expectations placed upon them. At points, the actors will speak at once, red-faced, their stories colliding. While this device works to convey the seriousness of their situation, it can prove distracting, as important details are lost amid the frenzy onstage. The script however, is sharp and funny – disarmingly so. It is only when the Robox we know and love begins to bark orders at the actors that the piece becomes sinister. Fulfilment gives pause to a narrative that will be news to most – this is a story that everybody should be talking about.

Fulfilment is playing at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.