By Fred Pryce
We live in the era of late-capitalism, where corporations hold immeasurable power over society, and billionaires flourish while countless billions struggle to survive. In the same way that the death and destruction of WW1 gave birth to the Dada movement, we are seeing artists reject logic and reason in the face of seemingly unstoppable worldwide catastrophe, whether economic, political, or ecological. The Market is a Wind-up Toy attempts to give voice to the absurd degree in which this system has moulded the world into its image, resulting in a sugar rush of satirical comedy, in which its extreme energy is only matched by its commitment to the bizarre.
Written by James Jackson and Lindsay Templeton and directed by Jackson, it’s less of a play than an hour-long experience, a series of loosely connected sketches surreally riffing on profit motives and world news, in which the six-strong ensemble plays a variety of animated caricatures. These digressions are always straining for wackiness as well as some kind of relevance, from a stock-market crash becoming a hostage crisis when the golden bull turns terrorist, to an auction of all the world presided over by a preening Maggie Thatcher. Issues such as child soldiers, fascism, refugees, and pollution are integrated into the script like political flotsam, often just tossed-off references with no interest in exploring the topics in-depth. These chapters are punctuated with uneasily recited excerpts from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and each features copious amounts of dancing, shouting and cartoonish violence.
Choreography is certainly the show’s chief accomplishment, given not only a number of great dance sequences (the highlight utilising the meme-worthy potential of ‘He Lives In You’ from The Lion King), but the movement of every scene and transition being blocked to an animated precision, the cast sprinting in madcap harmony. The lighting and sound design, by John Collopy and Justin Gardam respectively, is also attuned to the zany rhythms of the show exactly, and never allows for a break in the relentless pacing. Chucking you immediately in the deep end (where you’ll stay until it finishes), the show opens with a bravura ode to Ikea, its chief inspiration for aesthetics and humour, with dancing that bridges the gap between Monty Python and Zumba. We are introduced to our protagonist, the very Swedishly-named Arvid Flatpack (played by all of the cast members throughout), a standard corporate lackey with aspirations for greatness, although exactly what this entails is murky. When the market collapses, he goes on a quest to restore it to its former glory, and possibly get a promotion.
Arvid is emblematic of where the show’s inventiveness begins to hit a wall. Though it has aspirations to mock this capitalist-white-guy protagonist, turning the story into a generic hero’s journey makes it feel disappointingly familiar, and it spends far too much time trying to explain the convoluted machinations of this fantasy world, rather than simply indulging in absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Also a little tired is the use of the Greek mythos as a plot structure (particularly Orpheus), as the journey into the Underworld never really comes into its own, echoing so many other works before it in a way that doesn’t fully connect to the material. In fact, a lot of the sketches dotted throughout feel half-formed, tossing ideas into a blender and spitting them out just as quickly, and when a joke doesn’t land, the over-the-top vigour of it can become grating.
Though it never slows down, such a constant high starts to feel numbing, and the collage of current events feels strangely lacking of a central thesis. It’s certainly a political show, but one without an ideology, presenting problems rather than questioning them. The cast’s commitment and energy, and the technical accomplishment of running the show, should be praised, but on an ideas level it never coheres. It too often seems like they’re tossing Swedish meatballs at the wall and seeing what sticks.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.