Review: HAPPY TO HELP, Park Theatre, March 16 2016

By: Jun. 17, 2016
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In 1979, I was working in a supermarket, stacking shelves to earn the money to pay for pints of cider on a Saturday night. I found them rather benign places where people bought toothpaste and cat food, but The Clash (the leftover money I spent on records) were telling me in songs like "Lost In The Supermarket" that they were cathedrals of consumerism and thus vectors of the anomie that infested Britain's recession hit cities which would soon explode in the 1981 riots.

If anything, since then, supermarkets' reputations have fallen further still, now widely regarded as bully boys who, with barely concealed pleasure, use their buying power to set retail prices that inevitably close independent shops and force wholesale prices that destroy farms' viability. It is against this background that Michael Ross's Happy To Help (at the Park Theatre until 9 July) plays out its black comedy.

15 years ago, smooth executive Tony visits ageing farmer Ned, to make him an offer he can't refuse: sell the land to us to build a supermarket or we'll source from other farms and you'll go under. In the present day, Tony is sent to the now thriving supermarket as a kind of mystery shopper, to help him re-connect with the "Frisca Family", the UK end of which he now leads. Soon he is caught by the kind of working practices that have made Frisca (a thinly disguised Walmart) so successful: arbitrary shift patterns, low wages, insecure employment and, above all else, vehement anti-Trade Unionism. But there's something about the store manager, Vicky, that seems personal, as does her favouring of handsome, malleable, anarchist shopboy Josh over serious, dumpy, lefty Elliot. It isn't long before things come to a head.

What a delight it is to see a new comedy on the London stage, moreover, one set in England with plenty to say about the way we live now. If the jokes are not often laugh-out-loud funny, there's plenty that hit home, the satire biting, the caricature appallingly close to reality. It's definitely Tesco Finest or Waitrose1 stuff!

Much of that success is down to an excellent cast who, apart from being rather too posh (but ain't it always so these days?), deliver superbly for director Roxy Cook. Charles Armstrong gives his fish-out-of-water CEO just the right level of corporate ruthlessness leavened with personal sympathy for us to feel his pain - with just a touch of Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places informing his work. Katherine Kotz, all heels, push-up bra and sneering superiority suggests, how Katie Hopkins might act at Asda and David Bauckham has a lot of fun with his redneck billionaire, Huck.

If the play ends somewhat abruptly (in a perfectly understandable variation from the play text) it's still a cleverly constructed comedy-drama with more than enough chuckles and tension to warrant both parts of that compound descriptor. In this venue, EDLP might stand for Every Day Laughs Plenty!


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