Friday, 5 September 2014

Theatre review: Chicken Shop

Bruntwood Prize winner Anna Jordan's Chicken Shop tackles both a coming-of-age story and a horrific social issue, a combination of subjects that could have conflicted, but it more or less pulls it off. Sixteen-year-old Hendrix (Jesse Rutherford) has been raised by his gay mother Hillary (Angela Bull) and her ex-partner Meg, but that relationship fell apart and Meg has long since moved out. Hillary has now moved in her new girlfriend Kate (Millie Reeves,) a flaky Australian in her twenties, whom Hendrix is attracted to and irritated by in equal measure. Bullied at school on the assumption that the son of gay parents must be gay himself, he tries to prove his sexuality to himself as much as anyone by visiting a brothel above a fried chicken shop. The naïve teenager isn't just nervous about sex, he's totally unprepared for the reality of Moldovan prostitute Luminita (Lucy Roslyn,) kept locked in her room 24/7 by her pimp Leko (John Last,) forbidden from opening the window and fed only on the chicken from the shop below.

With Hendrix too nervous to do anything sexual, the two start to talk, and gradually build a friendship in which Luminita sees some hope of contacting the outside world, while the boy starts to imagine himself her saviour.

Chicken Shop is something of a slow burn with the occasional lull, and the opening half-hour feels like an overlong setup, but there's no denying the scenes between Rutherford and Roslyn sparkle, and there's an awful lot going on in Jordan's script without it feeling overloaded. On one hand it's a coming-of-age story that raises questions particularly interesting in light of the ongoing discussion on the sexualisation and objectification of women: Hendrix has been raised a feminist, taught that pornography and objectifying women are the worst things imaginable, but it's left him uncomfortable in his own sexuality; ironically, Hillary's attempt to be sexually open around him has left him repressed.

While his mother's sexuality has contributed to Henrix's hangups, Jordan's treatment of a gay relationship is also impressive in the way she presents it as indistinguishable from a straight one, in the bad ways as well as the good. Hendrix describes a typical "good cop/bad cop" relationship with his parents, and with the long-term relationship over, the unseen Meg has disappeared to go motorcycling around the world, while Hillary's midlife crisis has resulted in her shacking up with a much younger woman whose qualities don't seem to extend far beyond her looks.

The scenes with Luminita meanwhile are often harrowing, and Roslyn's performance is a standout - a couple of times she had me close to welling up. Having let the genie out of the bottle with a look at a woman essentially kept in slavery, it's a bit tricky to bring the story back to the teenager with the well-meaning, if flawed upbringing, but maybe that's the point: Being raised with hippie ideals of growing up to change the world can be overwhelming when you suddenly realise how much changing the world needs.

Chicken Shop by Anna Jordan is booking until the 28th of September at Park Theatre 90.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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