RIOT, National Theatre Shed


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.

Mission Drift, National Theatre Shed


Originally written for Exeunt.

How do you tell the story of 400 years of American capitalism? The TEAM approach that seemingly impossible challenge by going right to the heart of what sustains it: mythology. Their searing, sexy, gloriously shambolic voyage through the heartland of the great American Dream takes on one myth with another, using a symbolic saga of American youth, adventure and frenzied acquisition to intelligently skewer an economic system fatally fixated on growth. And there are songs. Brilliant, heart-stopping, floor-shaking songs.

The narrative device driving this gorgeous, chaotic juggernaut is actually deceptively simple. Using one of the staples of the Hollywood movie – that other great cornerstone of American identity – Mission Drift pursues the spirit of capitalism through a pair of intertwined love stories. Catalina and Joris are two immortal Dutch teenagers who travel over on one of the first ships to the New World, forever fourteen as they hungrily chase the frontier, while in post-credit crash Las Vegas, a cocktail waitress and a desert-dwelling cowboy seek shared respite from financial collapse. Playing tricks with temporality, the show effortlessly jumps between these two couples, its fleet-footed narrative overseen by Heather Christian’s captivating songstress Miss Atomic.

The resulting atmosphere in The Shed is somewhere between theatre, gig and cabaret show. It’s thrilling, it’s explosive, it burns with the heat of flashing neon and sun-soaked desert sand. This is unapologetically exciting theatre, giddily romanticising Americana at the same time as dismantling it. Through the furious pace, Christian’s electric music and the astonishing energy of The TEAM’s performers, the audience is bathed in the white heat of financial risk and lightning growth. Its implicit confession is that capitalism is undeniably seductive. This truth is repeatedly acknowledged as Mission Drift races through boom and bust, charting first the unstoppable march of the frontier and then the inexorable growth of Las Vegas, its neon towers thrusting up out of the desert in the ultimate expression of the capitalist dream. And all the while the action is underscored with a greedy, breathless hymn to the pursuit of growth. Bigger, bigger. Better, better. I want, I want.

At the apex of this progress is the atomic bomb: explosive, destructive, yet strangely beautiful, watched by sunglass-clad gamblers during tests at the nearby Nevada Proving Grounds. Here, that violent and seductive presence is wrapped up in Miss Atomic, whose songs blow the place apart with her namesake’s intoxicating cocktail of power and beauty. She is, in a sense, the face (and blistering voice) of it all – the bomb, Las Vegas, the unstoppable force of capitalist desire. But Catalina and Joris, played by the tireless and ever-animated Libby King and Brian Hastert, are also the blazing symbols of the American Dream. A pair of entrepreneurial Peter Pans, these two Dutch adventurers attain an eternal adolescence that hints at both the immaturity and the headiness of their restless greed. They also lay claim to that very American right to reinvention, renaming themselves at each new frontier until those names become meaningless.

The TEAM’s distinctly postmodern version of the USA is one that Jean Baudrillard would instantly recognise, in which signs have replaced reality. The desert of the real is Las Vegas’ sign-littered Neon Boneyard, cradling “the fragile bones of electric dinosaurs”, while history itself has become a theme park ride – set to warp speed and decked in flashing lights. The platform on which the band performs is flanked by tree trunks, the backdrop behind them suggesting the wild, unexplored forests of the frontier, but now that frontier is only an empty image glossed over with the glitter of the casino. It’s all a mirage.

It might all be simulacra, but this breakneck production still dazzles, sweeping us up in its epic scope. Momentum builds and builds, in step with the pioneers and the skyscrapers, leaving the scattered debris of stage mess in its wake. In the words of Miss Atomic, it “grows so fast that you can see it, and feel it, and be afraid of it”. It’s only in the final half hour or so that this pace begins to flag, with music and chaos dropping away in favour of calm, reflective storytelling. While it’s with a hint of disappointment that the pulse-quickening action departs, the lull feels necessary, the sudden shift in aesthetic reflecting the water-treading stasis of recession that we still find ourselves mired in. This structure is, in itself, a sort of warning. No matter how fast you spin it, the roulette wheel always has to stop turning sooner or later.

Photo: Ves Pitts