Originally written for Exeunt.
On 10th February 2005, in the early hours of the morning, around 6,000 people pushed, kicked and shoved their way into a newly opened retail store. The reason? Cheap sofas and cut-price candles. The story of the riot at the Ikea store in Edmonton is a strange and disquieting one – a troubling illustration of just how far we’re willing to go for a bargain. As a critical lens on modern consumer culture, it makes a striking premise.
This is a starting point that the aptly named Wardrobe Ensemble attack with energy and wit, but also with indecisiveness. Their show, a vivid mash-up of physical theatre, music, comedy and critique, feels torn between two different – and not entirely compatible – stories. The first is that of the riot itself, shining a discount Swedish lamp on the insidious greed that drove the mounting chaos. Is it the bargains, the shoppers or the culture itself that is to blame? Wedged alongside this, like the ill-fitting joints of a flat-pack bookshelf, is a warm and witty comedy about the employees of the store, whose awkward romantic entanglements are rudely interrupted by the hordes of frenzied shoppers trampling through the show-rooms.
These two separate narratives are never quite slotted together; as so often with flat-pack furniture, a vital screw is missing. Despite this incongruity, however, The Wardrobe Ensemble offer much to delight in throughout this fast-paced hour long show. Their physical work is sharper than many other young companies in a similar vein, constructing precise and often hilarious stage images. The lighting – all Ikea lamps, naturally – offers an ingenious and surprisingly slick take on the DIY aesthetic, while the music provides a riotous soundtrack for both comedy and chaos.
It is only a shame that the intellectual muscles beneath are not as flexed as those of the tireless performers. There are many intriguing elements of this scenario that remain underexplored: the responsibility held by the Ikea store for its aggressive price-slashing, the sense of entitlement bred by a society that always promises newer and better, the invasiveness of 21st-century consumer culture, our increasing detachment from the production and value of the objects we buy, the contextual position of this event just a few years prior to the financial crisis. While they could do with further unpacking, however, the germs of these thoughts can be glimpsed, in some moments more clearly than others. The nuance might need work, but the ideas are definitely there.
And how brilliant that a young company like The Wardrobe Ensemble have the chance to showcase their work at the National Theatre – with flaws, yes, but also with energy and passion and invention. The current Limited Editions season offers a perfect demonstration of the advantages of The Shed as a temporary space and the freedom of its programming to support both young artists and young audiences. There’s a youthful excitement in the auditorium and in the bar afterwards that, if nothing else, is a fantastic thing to see. The real test will be if that can stretch into the main building after The Shed’s bright cladding is dismantled.