Thursday, 12 June 2008

REVIEW: "Oxford Street"

The RZ had meant to catch Levi David Addai’s testament to retail hell when it played at the Royal Court, but time and money failed to align with the requisite constellations. Fortunately, he received a second chance when the Royal Court announced a limited transfer to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Would sitting in a storefront watching retail workers complain add great depth and realism to the work?

Not really, though it did add quite a bit of atmosphere, though the choice of Elephant and Castle is an odd one. For non-London readers, Oxford Street is a busy, middle class street loaded with major shops. If you’re on the Tottenham Court Road side, you’ll get Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastore), Topshop, SportsDirect, and others. As you approach Oxford Circus you get some posher options, including the Regent Street Apple Store about a block away. Head further west toward Bond Street and you have all the major department store flagships minus the ultra high end Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. Elephant and Castle, on the other hand, features such offerings as Tesco, Iceland, something resembling a Sylvan Learning Centre, Poundstretcher (not a pound store but a discount retailer nonetheless), a mattress liquidator, some money wiring stands, and a bingo hall. Were it not for the presence of a WH Smith's, E&C would classify as what one of the RZ's best friends terms a "ghetto mall," or a mall that fails to attract a demographic with enough education and income to support the presence of a bookstore.

In other words, the people who shop there are more like the employees in the play’s shop, sparring over who gets £6.22/hr vs. £6.13, than the shop’s customers who can somehow afford £40+ for official football shirts and ungodly sums for trainers. Pleasantly, it looks like that demographic came out in droves for the play. Unfortunately, the RZ found himself wishing they’d been able to have something better.

The problem, with doing a retail based play, though, is that it will inevitably be compared to the ultimate disgruntled service worker film, Clerks. While Oxford Street doesn’t try to reach the former's humourous heights, it also doesn’t seem to try very hard at doing anything new with the genre either. College grad Kofi is miserably slumming it as a security guard, passing jokes with disgruntled Loraina to make the days go by while first generation immigrants Emmanuel and Alek bemoan Kofi’s spoiled British attitude and comparatively poor work ethic. When new employee Darrell comes to the store, everything seems fun at first: he gets on well with the boss and his coworkers, and even knows Kofi from their school days. However, Darrell’s past as an unsavoury character remains much of his present, and when he expects Kofi to assist with a shoplifting scheme halfway through the show, it’s easy to guess where everything’s going.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some funny or sharply pointed moments (two thwarted hoods changing course for the Trocadero) but there’s no real depth to the text - everybody is playing to archetype and there’s little to no emotional backing to the characters. As a result, the RZ found himself checking a neighbour’s watch every 5-10 minutes during the second half, waiting for the inevitable so the play could end.

Addai also throws in enough London geographical and landmark references to rival Kevin Smith, but whereas Smith’s lines are easily discarded, Addai’s carried more importance in the RZ’s mind, perhaps because he (and most of the audience) caught them. Whether the play could work outside of London without significant localisation is a tricky question to answer.

Fortunately, the highly diverse and talented cast give it their all. Cyril Nri is both paternal and professional as head guard Emmanuel, and Kristian Kiehling has straight-faced Alek down to a T. Amelia Lowdell makes the most of underwritten boss Stephanie, attempting to keep her slacker store-fronters on task. Likewise, Dawn Walton wisely keeps her cast and sets moving in a cross-traverse staging and Soutra Gilmour managed to find comfortable stools for 100.

It’s hard to say whether or not Oxford Street is worth the trek to South London, especially since the only remaining tickets are a limited number sold at the door. The production’s atmosphere is fantastic, and it’s hard to go wrong at the heavily subsidised price, but audiences should go in expecting a messy end - something not usually recommended.

Where: Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre (via Royal Court)
When: Until 14 June. Fr/Sa @ 17:00 and 20:00
How Much: £8, cash only at the door, limited tickets remain.
Concessions: None.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8 for the atmosphere and the better scenes. Addai has potential as a playwright, but his work’s not quite there yet. However, most things are worth seeing for under a tenner.
RZ Other Notes: First and foremost, make sure you bring small change with you as the only toilets are the pay variety (20p). Second, the storefront (a converted jobs centre) is not air conditioned, and there was a wave of people rolling up sleeves and creating makeshift fans around an hour in (of 90 min. total.) Drinks are not allowed, so have some water or ice cream before you take your seat and hope for the best. The best seats in the RZ’s opinion are on the right side from the entrance regardless of whether you face the wall or the shop window.

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