Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: RIOT, National Theatre Shed

Review: RIOT, National Theatre Shed

The Wardrobe Ensemble are nine of the freshest faces you’ve ever seen on a National Theatre stage. They’re a Bristol-based graduate company with flickers of flair and RIOT, their debut show, first seen at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is as ebullient as it is naïve.

RIOT leaps off from a peculiar moment in 2005: a stampede at Edmonton IKEA, then the largest in the UK, in its opening night. After a fireworks display, some 6,000 over-excited customers rushed through the doors and round the furniture store’s trademark yellow trail, causing a human crush that left six people in hospital and dozens more suffering from heat exhaustion. The spectre of Hillsborough loomed large. Over what? Budget Swedish furniture.

It’s a strong starting point; one that serves a damning indictment of our entire consumerist culture, not just those whose idiocy triggered the crush. The performers spend a lot of time artfully clattering into one another and slinging slow-motion punches as customers grab every Knubbig lamp and Karlstad sofa they can get their mitts on. This, says the store manager afterwards, “was supposed to be a special day;” a chance to get “more for less,” as a crazed customer puts it.

But it’s a point that doesn’t really merit an hour’s exploration. Fashion designer Alexander Wang took three minutes to make it – far more elegantly – in a viral marketing campaign that filmed hundreds of fans let loose on a warehouse of free clothes. (The video is all the more queasy because it absolutely endorses the very ugliness it exposes.)

To compensate, the Wardrobe Ensemble actually employ the event as a backdrop to their own comic characters, mostly new employees caught up in the crush, including Jin, the faciliator fired for suggesting the launch would misfire, and romantic first aider James Blumt – not to be mistaken with his near-namesake. There are some decent set pieces and running gags, but it rather feels like the company are skirting the subject matter’s real substance in the hunt for laughs. After all, why start with a real event if you’re looking to create generic sketches?

You wish that they’d commit to playing the event’s truth – and that doesn’t necessarily mean its facts and figures. Rather than a store manager spouting sedate corporatespeak, you want to see someone genuinely fearing for their job. Rather than stock rom-com scenarios, you want to see the guard left with a dislocated jaw and staff members doing their best to salvage the situation. Its best figure is the respectable father who recounts having his new sofa nicked before stabbing the thief with a kitchen knife. It’s to the show’s discredit that you never realise an actual stabbing occurred.

But how brilliant that a young company, still a long way off the finished article, can make a show and get it to the National Theatre. Without any trace of apology. Without a whisper of emergence or young audiences or outreach. As part of the main programme.

Five, ten years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Think back to the Transformation season debutants – Matthew Bourne, Roy Williams, Moira Buffini – and they were well into their thirties. Now, thanks to a greater degree of flexibility that bucks the prospect of rep-or-nothing, it’s commonplace to see companies like Made In China and nonzeroone in the NT’s listings. A three-show run means that The Wardrobe Ensemble, still less than two years old, need only sell 750 tickets. With National mailing lists and publicity, that’s doable – and what a difference that many new audience acquaintances that might make.

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  1. The Wardrobe Ensemble | A History of the Shed in 100 People - […] and they were manufactured, a bit like Take That but with musical ability. Their first show – RIOT –…

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