Pros: A simple, stripped back one-woman show. So full of humour and satire (delivered fantastically) that the whole thing flies by.
Cons: Perhaps a bit too clever, perhaps a bit too simple.
Mark Ravenhill is a bit of legend. You can count on him for plays with darkness, rumbling with anger and then smothered in humour and wit. You barely even notice the underside of it until you think about it, and Ravenhill sure as hell makes you think about it. He takes the audience by the goolies and says ‘I’ve got you exactly where I want you’. He gets us there through an imperceptible see-saw of emotions and events: never hovering on anything too strong for too long, only long enough for a very brief gasp before he forces that intake of breath back out again in the shape of a laugh. Clever. Too clever for its own good? Well, now, that depends entirely on who is playing it.
In this version of Product that hefty weight falls right onto the shoulders of Olivia Poulet. She plays a bullshit Hollywood producer pitching a distasteful script to an anonymous starlet. The script is entitled Mohammed and Me; where the empty world of the chick flick meets the satirical: a tall, dark and handsome lover who also happens to be a jihadi. Therein lies the baggage that Poulet has to haul. When Ravenhill premiered Product in August 2005, he did so less than a month after the July 7th bombings, with the events of 9/11 still rippling their way into every corner of every society.
Saying that, Ravenhill once said about writing Product ‘I wanted to see how simple a play could be’. So what’s Poulet got to worry about then? Only that this ‘simple’ play is simple because it relies on only one actor and a shed load of words that hold everything a story possibly can. There are no bells and no whistles to fall back on. She has to wrap us all around her little finger, all on her own. And that’s exactly what she does, flitting between over-zealously performed excerpts from Mohammed and Me and pompous industry jokes about the diehard fickleness of Hollywood. Poulet has perfect comic timing; glances, pauses and hesitations so carefully placed that they verge on unnoticeable, but certainly induce sniggers. She has all the falsity of Hollywood mixed with honest vulnerability and femininity. She is sharp and varied enough to keep our ears firmly pricked, interested and able to make us laugh at the drop of a hat. None of that is simple after all, especially when she spends the majority of the time dictating a script (Mohammed and Me) that is fundamentally pants.
Product uses one person to, on the one hand, show the paranoia and defencelessness in the face of terrorism and on the other the need for things to be sugar-coated and entertaining. It works so well because paranoia and defencelessness also rear their ugly heads when you fall in love. So at some point, however different, both sides of the story fuse together. Not to mention, Product is completely hilarious. It is hard not to admire something that makes you laugh and makes you think.
Author: Mark Ravenhill
Director: Robert Shaw
Producer: Arcola Theatre
Booking Until: 23/05/2015
Box Office: 0207 503 1646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/production/arcola/product