Chicken Shop, Park Theatre - review

Last year, pioneering female writers Crooked Pieces hosted an evening of poetry, drama, short films and music by women. One of the night's highlights was Chicken Shop, a piece of drama that was as unique as it was powerful.

After watching this great piece of theatre, I looked at the programme notes and noticed that this wasn’t a short one-act play, but rather an excerpt of a forthcoming larger show. I was delighted that this was the case, but when was it going to be performed again? And would the play in its entirety match up to my now-high expectations? Well I’ve had to be patient (it’s been approximately 12 months) but the prolonged gestation period has been worth it.

Written by renowned Bruntwood Prize Award Winner Anna Jordan (whose play Freak is also currently on in London) Chicken Shop was inspired by a real incident she read in a newspaper. Above an inconspicuous fried chicken shop in suburban Hounslow, police raided the premises and liberated a number of women who were the victims of sex trafficking.

The play itself begins with Hendrix (Jesse Rutherford), a 16-year-old boy who lives with his mother Hillary (Angela Bull) and her younger female lover Katie (Millie Reeves). While he is emotionally intelligent and cares for his mother very much, Hendrix finds Hillary’s willingness to excuse Katie’s every indulgence exasperating and longs to have someone to talk to about his interests as he used to in the past... The status quo ends abruptly when news reaches Hendrix’s fellow pupils of his mother’s sexuality and proceed to systematically give him a hard time, escalating from verbal abuse to violence. Driven by curiosity as well as a need to squash the doubts in his mind about his sexual orientation, Hendrix visits Luminita (Lucy Roslyn), a sex worker whose advert was found in a newspaper. It soon becomes apparent (to the audience at least) that Luminita is not on the premises of her own volition, but forced to work there. For Hendrix, his relationship with Luminita will turn his world upside down and inside out.

One of the many things that I liked about the play was how much things made sense. This may sound strange, but you’d be surprised by how many plays get from A to B via a Deus ex machina, instead of cause and consequence. By placing Hendrix in a home environment that doesn’t condone junk food or anything from the 21st century that’s ‘bad’, we understand why he finds life at home sterile and how curiosity about the outside world takes him to some unexpected places.

Anyone au fait with Jordan’s writing knows how fearless it is. No topic is deemed unsuitable for the theatre. That’s not to say that it shares the starkness or bleak hyperreality of Edward Bond's or Sarah Kane's plays. Beneath the darkness and dread circumstances, humanity can be found in Jordan’s work and the hope of a better day.

Director Jemma Gross draws out fine performances from all the cast and the subtleties within Jordan’s writing. The loving relationship between Hillary and Hendrix is fleshed out, as well as Hillary’s blindness to the effect that Katie’s behaviour is having on her son. The twist in Hendrix's search for a ‘father-figure’ is also a nice touch – the person with the ‘masculine’, worldly-wise qualities he's looking for is his mother’s former partner, Meg who he hopes to see again.

As for Luminita, Roslyn takes what could have been a clichéd Eastern European character and infuses her with warmth, sensitivity and a gamut of other qualities. This, if anything, makes her circumstances more heartbreaking, especially when Leko (John Last) – her captor and pimp – says to her face that one of the reasons her likes her is that there is nothing mentally or emotionally going on in her head. His presence on stage is every bit as unnerving as the ‘knife dance’ in Epsilon Productions’ Skin Tight.

This is probably an overused expression, but it’s nevertheless true: Chicken Shop is greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly the trafficking narrative is an important aspect, but the play is as much about growing up, dealing with the contradictory demands and impulses we all face as adults, as well as looking beyond our own problems to others’ needs. We have no idea what people who live nearby are going through.

Chicken Shop unequivocally ranks as one of the most important and memorable plays of the year.

The play runs at the Park Theatre until 28th September 2014.

(C) Michael Davis


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