Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We have a conflicting opinion of supermarkets; while we abhor their reported treatment of suppliers and negligible approach to Fairtrade, we all appreciate their convenience, choice and low-cost produce. Supermarkets are also major national employers and at one time or another many of us will have worked for one, either to pay your way through university or as a longer term career. Supermarkets, like all workplaces, are the full of drama which makes them a suitable subject for Michael Ross’ thought-provoking new play Happy to Help at the Park Theatre.
Tony is the UK Managing Director of major multinational supermarket Frisca and, to learn more about the day-to-day management of the business, he decides to go undercover in one of his own stores – built on the very land Tony purchased from a farmer 15 years before. Posing as shelf-stacker Derek, Tony comes face-to-face with his staff, transitory students Elliot and Josh, long-termer Myra and hard-as-nails store manager Vicky. In less than a week, Tony finds life in the aisles far more demanding than he expected as individuals take on the corporation.
As with Ross’ previous play Protect and Survive issues of town and country loom large as the Frisca mega-brand steamrollers everyone from farmers to employees in pursuit of customers. Happy to Help opens with a bubbly advert for the store as a place of food dreams which brilliantly snaps into the real-life and considerably more dour actual shop, obsessed with branding but with no real substance. Using a glaring strip-light approach throughout, perfectly designed by Sherry Coenen, the eternal dreary repetitiveness of the work is firmly established and mirrors the play’s references to broken dreams and resigned futility. Ross never allows the audience to feel comfortable about the play’s direction and offers a few surprises along the way.
Fundamentally this is about the power-play of a microworld as characters seek to gain control of their own or other’s lives. Leading the team is Vicky, an exceptional creation, who on the one hand has the difficult job of managing a variety of temporary and permanent staff while delivering brand values to her American paymaster, while on the other relishes her own ability to outmanoeuvre everyone else. Katherine Kotz makes Vicky a manipulative baddie and in two particularly brilliant scenes appears to have the slick interrogation skills of a merciless MI5 spy-chief on a mole hunt, ruthlessly extracting knowledge from her disconcerted colleagues.
Charles Armstrong gives Tony just enough middle-class gravitas to separate him from the other workers but enough weakness to allow Vicky to outsmart him. Ben Mann takes Josh convincingly from wannabe rock star to corporate stooge and it’s through him that the audience sees the sadness of this story both in questioning whether the people you work with are really friendsand in his resignation to the idea that “nobody gets what they want from life”. Jonny Weldon and Rachel Marwood make the most of thinly drawn colleagues Elliott and Myra so these roles could be developed a little more to add greater texture.
The only duff note here is the ending and, while it has clearly been changed from the printed version in the programme, it still feels melodramatic and unlikely, which is a shame after building up so well – sometimes characters can just be evil for the sake of it without having to have a just cause. Nonetheless,Happy to Help is an engaging and perceptive new play that gives a fascinating insight into the workings of major retailers. Convenience and choice come at a price, but this play makes us all complicit, as Josh says: “supermarkets don’t kill small shops, people do”.
Runs until 9 July 2016 | Image: David Monteith-Hodge