By Jessica Derwent
Shopping and F***ing, the much-anticipated Aidan’s College Theatre adaptation of Mark Ravenhill’s provocatively titled production, was performed last night in the unusually humid heat of a Durham evening. Arriving at the white door of Empty Shop, surrounded by the demolition sight of the Gates, it felt oddly eerie. As I entered, this feeling hadn’t gone – the room was dark and cool indie music was playing – and neither was it gone when the play was over.
I hadn’t heard of the play before I volunteered myself to review it, but the description struck a chord. It was described as the story of LGBT+ students in an age where consumerism is king. I was surprised to learn it was written in 1996, it seemed to be so strikingly relevant. Although the AIDS crisis is in the past, the issues faced by LGBT+ people are still very much alive.
The decision by ACT to put on this play in the era of Tinder and Grindr seems highly appropriate, perhaps even more so than it was when Ravenhill first wrote the play. I’m not suggesting that Ravenhill is a prophetic genius, but his play does somehow anticipate the internet age. An age where consumerism, intimacy, and sex are all intermingled in a confusing way. It is about three roommates Harry (Richard Penney), Louis (Ben George) an underage male prostitute Niall (Luke Armitage), Kendall (Katerina Theodorirdis), and drug dealing pimp Simon (Ed Cook) – all characters were renamed from One Direction, and of course the mythical capitalist model Kendall Jenner.
Director Eleri Crossland was crucial in making this play so successful, reinterpreting its consumerist themes through the t-shirts worn by the cast. They all had brands on them, such as Visa and Tinder, with the character’s names inscribed underneath. It really made me see Tinder in a new way. The way we scroll through people like we scroll through shoes on ASOS really hit me, whilst sitting in the heat of Empty Shop – in a way that many plays in Durham fail to accomplish.
I was concerned at first that the rapid scene changes were going to get confusing, but due to the organisation, direction, and technical use of sound and lighting these worked smoothly. The dark room was transformed into a 90s rave, and then the front room of a seedy pimp, with ceaseless ease. Throughout they used a projector, which really gave the play a professional and artsy edge. A larger venue would have worked better as I felt squashed, but Durham doesn’t have a huge amount of options.
The play was dark and daring but with an audience full of millennials who have probably all watched disturbing viral videos before the age of 15 I think it wasn’t too heavy to handle. Perhaps in the 90s this was the cutting edge of dark and daring but now in the post 9/11 era, where we have seen Facebook live streaming of murders and are clicks away from hardcore porn, it didn’t feel disturbing. Either way, the cast and director dealt very well with the darker themes of sexual abuse and violence. I didn’t feel as though as I was spoon fed any of it; it was presented in such a mature way, I forgot it was a play put on by students.
I felt shocked at points but in a clever way. It really opened me up to a lot of issues and made me feel a kind of empathy for all the characters, something I rarely get in student plays and this was mainly down to the stellar acting. The stand out actor for me was Ben George. There was one particularly difficult scene to act, in which he is having phone sex and makes loud orgasmic sounds – his professionalism was pretty amazing. The words cock and dick were mentioned a lot. The cast stayed true to their roles despite the audience’s laughter, which in a small room of students is hard to do. The emotional intensity of some scenes was genuinely astounding, particularly the abusive arguments which felt so close to reality that its trigger warnings were definitely required.
It made me laugh, cry and gasp – it made me question attitudes to sex and intimacy in a new way. At university, we are used to one night stands, even if we haven’t had one ourselves, we are aware of the scenario. I assumed I was just numb to a lot of ideas surrounding sex and relationships, but it turns out I wasn’t. I don’t think any of us cling to a pre-pot-noodle age, but it certainly calls into the question the way consumerism and the internet cause a loss of genuine feelings. The inclusion of LGBT+ actors was also refreshing and moving – the issues felt vividly real and poignantly relevant.
‘Shopping and F***ing will be performed in Empty Shop from Monday, 19th June until Tuesday 20th June at 19:3o. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Aidan’s College Theatre