BWW Reviews: SHELF LIFE, Theatre Delicatessen at Marylebone Gardens, October 17 2012
After a journey through red-curtained corridors (natch), one emerges - new born, but fully formed - into the light. (It felt a little like this famous scene from Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask). Alive now, we are ushered into a nursery in which we are given a lesson about the birds and the bees and receive the first, but not the last, endorsement on our Record of Achievement.
Halfcut's Shelf Life (at Theatre Delicatessen, Marylebone Gardens until 10 November) is as immersive, interactive and absurd an experience as they promise. Moving from one spectacularly designed room to the next (Katherine Heath's sets are acutely well-observed) we are sent off by a distinctly Micheal Goveish headteacher on to job interviews (with a David Brentish recruitment consultant), a wedding reception, a Saga-style holiday and ultimately to a rest home that smelled a lot more pleasant than any I know. And... to death (more of which later).
Does it work? To some extent it depends on which actors work with you - yes, you are very much part of the show - and on how much you buy into the conceit. I (no apologies for that pronoun in this review) had only just begun to "get" Shelf Life when I was - somewhat appropriately - middle-aged and near the end of my "life": others seemed to get it straight away and some not at all. The trick is to be the person you want to be and not be yourself (too self-conscious) nor some dream person (too difficult to sustain).
The nature of this devised, promenade production means that the actors have to work with each audience member's responses, like a improv show and, like an improv show, it was a bit hit and miss. The best moments were largely scripted: a travel guide's slowly revealed enmity with an absent colleague; a job interview that promised much but recommended telesales; a support group for retirees led by a hideously patronising facilitator. But, though black comedy is Shelf Life's genre, there aren't many laughs - partly because the nod and wink that explicitly shows that the actors are in on the joke, rather undermines the whole premise.
For all the approaches that might have worked better for me, these approaches may have worked perfectly well for others. But the finale surely worked well for everyone - a touching, beautiful and surprisingly moving denouement after a curious life lived out in 90 minutes.