The best reason to watch Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and Fucking is the first half of act two. A slender, fire-red curtain rolls down backstage resembling a great sensual muscle. Representing the dressing room of an haute couture clothier, the actors respond to it like capillaries popping around a great pulsing ventricle. The play’s central ideas of supply and demand spool from this moment of insight effortlessly and elegantly, thanks to Robert McNamara’s smoothly tailored direction.
Ravenhill’s story centers on a triad of twenty-something Londoners on the brink of their own civilized extinction. Mark, a junkie in the throes of drug withdrawal, is being cared for by his lovers Robbie and Lulu. A creature of addiction, Mark seeks the structure of a rehabilitation center. Meanwhile Lulu, in dire need of money, auditions with television producer Gary for a spot pushing products on his home shopping network. Gary, a lecherous control freak with an affinity for The Lion King, due to that film’s father-son relationship, forces her to undress in an attempt to reveal the naked truth that clothing covers up. Upon hiring her, he sends Lulu out to sell 300 hits of ecstasy at a London club. When she enlists the flighty Robbie to take the assignment, it proves disastrous, leaving the pair one week to compensate for the loss before Gary disciplines them Marathon Man-style.
After defecting from the detox clinic, Mark takes up with Brian, a 14-year-old prostitute with father issues of his own that manifest themselves in a humiliating sexual fantasy involving a screwdriver. Fine family holiday fun this show is not. The group joins back at Robbie and Lulu’s place, which they’ve converted into a mom-and-pop phone sex hotline to raise money. They play sex games that include servicing Brian’s need for symbolic paternal erotica.
Shopping and Fucking is an attempt at social comment and a dramatization of the banality of Western civilization. That we cannot connect with – or, for that matter, relate to – these lackadaisical culture vultures is the play’s impact and undoing. It leaves you numb, but the reason why may vary. It isn’t a flattering depiction of our generation, nor is it a particularly relevant one. Ravenhill’s pen is sharp enough, but he’s only trimming the fat from gluttony’s beast with his play, and there’s more to us than teeth and gristle.
Exaggerated slovenliness doesn’t really balance out, so liberal liberties have been tacked on and taken as gospel. Our plague of ambivalence might be a keen observation for discussion, but it’s not theatrical.