I didn’t imagine my first post-pandemic theatre trip would involve sitting in a tent on Clifton Downs with an incredibly lifelike fast food restaurant in front of me (courtesy of designer Ruby Pugh), but here we are. In fact, the tent is a clever and expansive pop-up space, known as The Theatre on the Downs, adjoining a pop-up street food experience called Breaking Bread.
Rather than focusing on the indie food trucks of Bristol, this play takes on the capitalist big dogs of the fast food industry, as narrated by a “washed up zombie clown”, Mr Winner (Tom England). He is the boss of the 10 millionth branch of Winners, which sells products like the ‘Show Me the Money Burger’, displayed on digital menu screens. However, soon enough the digital screens become visual aids in Mr Winner’s whistlestop tour of the history of work and food resources, from the days of hunting aurochs to feudalism and on to the evolution of factories, reluctantly aided by his restaurant staff and an array of props, including comedy masks, inflatables, and references to nineties/noughties pop royalty, S Club 7.
If you’ve ever wondered how the maddeningly perky instructors from the Peloton advert would give a history lesson, this will give you a glimpse. Though the up-tempo music, dancing and narration is delivered for dramatic effect and with knowing looks, it does wear thin across the 90 minutes, and it’s often hard to hear dialogue over the tunes. Two instances of repeatedly flashing lights – not strobe lighting, but pretty close – come with no pre-show warning, either at the point of booking or in the venue, which is a shame (I had to consciously look down at these points, because they can trigger my vestibular disorder). Quieter or slower sections tend to give the actors much more of a chance to shine – for example, a slow-motion sequence as a car glides over water, shortly followed by calling a dolphin a “leathery giggling bitch”.
The history is, of course, selective in the 90-minute timeframe, with employee Mike (Joseph Langdon) questioning why slavery has been skipped over; something the audience might echo. This has extra resonance in the city that flung a slave trader statue into the harbour last year, making headlines worldwide. It would also have been interesting to touch on Magna Carta, child labour or workhouses. A section on Karl Marx works well: in contrast, whatever your political views, nobody needs to see a threesome featuring Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
The Pay What You Can ticketing model is definitely worth a mention here, with three ticketing strands meaning you can see the show from as little as £12 – roughly the price of a burger in any Bristol restaurant above the fast food tier depicted in Winners. It’s good to see that a play so focused on money and resources has been made affordable to attend.
Winners is a thought-provoking piece that will spark conversation and ideas, especially as the ensemble provides a list of online resources for the audience at the end (as a QR code). There is, however, a risk of sensory overload before the cast takes a bow.
Written by: The Wardrobe Ensemble
Directed by: Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton
Produced by: Hannah Smith and The Wardrobe Ensemble
Winners is playing at the Theatre on the Downs until 28 August. More information and bookings can be found at the below link.