at The Shed, Thursday 20th September 2013
The year is 2005, Tom Brennan’s narrator tells us at the top of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s energetic RIOT. There’s a whiff of T.S. Eliot to the suggestion that 2005 is one of those “in-between years”, neither recent enough to be topical nor long enough ago to be the “good old days”. It’s both foreign (employment was at an all-time high and YouTube had only just uploaded its first video) and familiar (Harry Potter seems to have a particular tendency to grab headlines in any given year). But there was an event in Edmonton, at the opening of the largest IKEA in the UK at the time, which most of us have forgotten.
Interestingly, IKEA’s name is never actually mentioned, which is both a Good and Bad Thing simultaneously. On one hand, this means that the crush caused at the store’s opening and the way in which it brought out the worst aspects of humanity serve as a critique of consumer capitalism and its dehumanising nature. On the other hand, the fact this is so-very-clearly IKEA, complete with flat-pack furniture, Scandinavian-named furniture and yellow t-shirts, means that it sometimes runs the risk of being so specifically ‘about’ this event and this company that any external commentary becomes invalid.
Nonetheless, Brennan’s direction makes the smart decision of focusssing on the workers in the store rather than the customers themselves. To this end, we get a chilling indictment of the treatment of the ‘middle-man’, caught up between the consumer and the corporation. True to this idea, the most interesting character is James Newton’s Gin, tasked with overlooking the staff on “meet-and-greet” duty but keenly aware right from the off that this midnight opening, with a mob of 6000 outside the doors, is not going to end well. He is forced to tell dreadful jokes and buoy things up beyond reality in order to get his team on side, but there is always an air of despair behind his sad eyes. It’s just a shame his character gives way to the trials and tribulations of his co-workers as the piece moves on, so that the sharp anti-consumerist critique turns towards a bit of a plain love triangle.
What makes RIOT so invigorating, however, is the energy and speed with which this story is told, acting in stark contrast to the despondency and repetition of the IKEA workers. Thrillingly choreographed fight routines sit alongside imaginatively created movement sequences and intimate duologues, all soundtracked by loop pedals, brass and a piano. And though I wasn’t a fan of the will-they-won’t-they love story between Edith Woolley’s brash Nikki and Ben Vardy’s socially inept James Blumpt (a funnier joke than it sounds), a beautifully created and downright hilarious dream sequence towards the end does make the build-up somewhat worthwhile.
The ensemble have also found a clear and fruitful aesthetic here, with actors fixing wires and placing IKEA-style lights as they welcome us into the auditorium, drawing attention to the crossover between the artifice of both theatre and flat-pack furniture. From then on, pretty much the entirety of the show is lit by these lamps (with a dim wash above), allowing for focus on talking heads and flicking quickly between light and dark to give events a kind of action movie effect. In turn, they also become the actual products on sale, suggesting the somewhat radical idea that these ordinarily ornamental objects can actually be used for the practical purpose of making art.
All of this is played with such verve by the company that, for all of RIOT’s foibles, it’s hard not to play along. This is a piece made by a generation which, like me, has grown up watching shows defined by awkward humour like Peep Show and Extras, making it hugely entertaining as well as saying something about the excesses of consumerism. All of which males the final monologue, in which Brennan blithely recounts a semi-nightmarish story following the sale, all the more disturbing. This is what capitalism does: it turns us all into monsters, forcing us behind a façade of positivity and humour whilst all the while dismantling our humanity as easily as a cheap, do-it-yourself sofa from IKEA.