Mark Ravenhill’s infamous Shopping and Fucking created a new ‘in-yer-face’ genre within theatre.  He remarks before the script, “The theatre scandal – the play that shocked the audience, which rocked the church, the press and Parliament, the play ‘they’ tried to ban – is a powerful myth… Shopping and Fucking was never that play.” Just 20 years since its premiere, the piece almost feels outdated, as it sits so closely with the movement of theatre within that era. Sean Holmes’ version of the play latches on to its origins, set in the ‘90s, it is garish and uncompromising. Robbie and Lulu are ‘owned’ by heroin addict Mark, after he leaves they try to make their own way in the world. Lulu gets a job through Brian by flaunting her fabulous ‘acting’ skills, Brian thinks she’ll be good at selling. She asks Robbie to sell her ecstasy, but he basically gives it away. So the couple have to turn to selling themselves on a sex line to repay their debts. Meanwhile, Mark has become involved with a young boy Gary, after their initial transaction becomes more personal. Eventually, Mark introduces Gary to the group and so Robbie agrees to make his fantasy come true for a price. The play is clearly absurd in more ways than one, the plot is less than truthful and still pretty grotesque, all of which is echoed in the unnatural way in which it is delivered.

Ashley McQuire pulls off a welcome change in gender to the role of Brian. She’s a slick cockney angel dressed all in white, sent to help Lulu and Robbie. She preaches the gospel of money, “The getting is cruel, is hard, but the having is civilisation. Then we are civilised.” Sophie Wu is ungrounded as Lulu, flouncing her arms emphatically, she unfortunately brings little truth to the role.  Meanwhile Alex Arnold manages to bring some integrity to Robbie, you can smell the desperation on him. He is floundering and whimpering as he reaches for an ideal, “Fuck money. Fuck it. This selling. This buying. This system. Fuck the bitching world and let’s be… beautiful.” David Morst is the highlight of the show as Gary, although it’s quite clear he’s not fourteen as the play states, he is such an effervescent actor we forgive him. His physicality and fidgeting are great character choices, showing a big contrast between him and the older Mark. He is a small hub of all our feelings in one, “I’ve got this unhappiness. This big sadness swelling like its gonna burst,” he says. Alone, crumbling and so heart-wrenchingly vulnerable in the final scene, he shows the darker side to our transactions.

The piece is set firmly in the 90s through clothing and music choices, however the stage is dressed like a television studio. At points this works well, during Lulu’s interview and whilst the couple work on a sex channel. The set utilises live cameras which project onto screens at the back of the stage, while a green screen adds effects which is good for creating laughs. I don’t feel any of this is necessary though. I’ve seen it used in other productions and it seems to only act as a modern day set of binoculars. The story-telling is grossly outweighed by the gimmicks director Sean Holmes has inserted. The actors are selling from the beginning; during the incoming Arnold’s pushes merchandise, Sam Spruell starts the play with the selling of a seat upgrade, during the selling interlude they push chocolate bars and cans of beer. All of their clothing has neon tags on it, and they address us like a live studio audience at times. Ultimately it is garish and cheap, while the subtlety of story-telling is lost within it.

I feel as though the production sells the play short, the message of selling is shoved down our throat so many times we forget to actually care about it. This could perhaps be Holmes’ idea, but this still didn’t make it any easier for me to digest. Despite all, it is an absolutely roaring effort as always from the Lyric, they never leave me wondering about the future of theatre and why I love it.

Shopping and Fucking is playing Lyric Hammersmith until 5 November. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.

Photo: Helen Murray