Review: The Co-op, White Bear Theatre

Day-drinking, bickering and playacting their dream roles, three charmingly ambitious yet painfully insecure ‘nobodies’ run their dysfunctional co-operative acting agency from a makeshift office that is neatly cornered into the well-used space of the White Bear Theatre. Here, Make it Beautiful Theatre stage their high energy, if slightly erratic, debut comedy, The CO-OP.

With a financially and morally dwindling business, its people, and its utilities shutting down around it, The CO-OP and its dynamic cast (Gabriel Fogarty-Graveson, Felix Grainger and Cara Steele) bravely stage and satirise the anxieties felt by every ‘nobody’ vulnerably and sacrificially wading their way through the sometimes stagnant but always stormy waters that are the acting industry.

This show about an agency run by and for actors themselves was also, fittingly, written by two of the actors who performed it, Fogarty-Graveson and Grainger. This self-authorship does, however, inevitably run the risk of a certain level of personal overindulgence in the performance and script. With some jokes landing in only a couple of laps, I sometimes wonder whether this young company is relying on the false safety net of inside humour to carry them through. 

Nevertheless, the ‘in this together’ ethos of the co-operative agency is beautifully reflected in a cast that work as a seamless unit on stage, carrying all the tension, vulnerability and hilarious self-deprecation you’d expect from co-dependent misfit characters in such a desperate situation. I’m really rooting for Grainger’s Charlie, his hopeful energy infectious, whilst Steele’s hardened pessimism shields a heartbreakingly believable exhaustion with a job chipping away at her ambition. Fogarty-Graveson’s Jimmy graces this comedy with vitally brilliant timing, as well as a tragic nativity set firmly in denial and desperation.

With the cast playing multiple roles on top of their central characters throughout (ie the snooty casting director or the mysterious ‘occupier’ of the building) the entire show itself seems to stage the anxious excitement but tiresomeness of the endless audition process itself. As we heavily learned of the threesome’s various shitty acting jobs as well as the other daily parts they play (Charlie sells dog food and Caz is reluctantly seeing an elderly sugardaddy), ‘Twiggy’, the identity they all hide behind when answering the phone, with all the sleazy scripts of the stereotypical agent, become the solemn safety blanket in the shape of a consistent self-casted part to play; a made-up voice of authority that alienated them from their own rejections and failures.

Advertised as a ‘love letter to theatre and film’, The Co-op promises an atmosphere of nostalgia, romance and ambition as we watched three nerdy ‘nobodies’ reenact some of the biggest roles in film history. Although the transitions between these scenes are an intriguing experiment in a cinematic way of viewing theatre, the relationship between the main narrative arc and these stylised sketches was dissonant and unclear. As the characters’ grip on their own reality loosens (‘what scene is this?’), so does mine on the relevance of this very comedic but often forced device.

As the fictional world of the co-operative completely malfunctions, it seems morbidly fitting that the oddly stylised devises of The CO-OP do too: a difficult, almost psychedelic ending that sees the show descend into an incongruous collage of flashbacks, film enactments, obscure choreography and intense lighting and sound sequences. 

As Make it Beautiful develops over the coming years, I genuinely look forward to seeing them simplify and stick to their guns with their sharp, honest and satyric reflections and observations on life within the industry without diluting them with unnecessary theatrics. ‘That’s Life’, sings Sinatra as the cast take their bow; but it isn’t quite.

The CO-OP is playing the White Bear Theatre until 25 January. For more information and tickets, visit the White Bear Theatre website.