Team M&M are an enterprising Kiwi couple who premiered The Pantry Shelf at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The international experience has forged an expansive, freewheeling approach that draws inspiration from the absolutely bonkers theatrical traditions that made Danny Boyle's Olympic Games opening so striking.
The five-member cast play supermarket food products inhabiting a viciously competitive world where the pressure tobe chosen by fickle shoppers engenders jealousy, back-stabbing and rapidly changing alliances.
The food products emerge as well-rounded characters with fiery emotional conflicts and complex moral dilemmas.
Marion Shortt neatly captures the growing self-awareness of a trendy health food snack who comes to realise that her rebellious attitude is just a marketing ploy, while Matt Halliday expresses the pathos of a stodgy porridge who is seduced by the excitement of mixing with the sophisticated party products only to be cruelly spurned by Rita Stone's glamorous brand of chocolate.
The shopping cart routines are a bit repetitive but the dialogue is razor sharp and the lively performances sustain an appealing madcap energy.
The programme for The Pantry Shelf suggested that, after the performance, I should go home and talk to my food. I did as I was told and, having experienced both The Pantry Shelf and the early evening ingredient of this eclectic double bill – Thomas Sainsbury et al's Nøughty Girls – the aforementioned food was particularly articulate.
The pizza spoke volumes – and is no more.
It wasn't so much that I'd missed the point of The Pantry Self but more that I was impressed sufficiently to craft my own post-apocalyptic, gastronomic satire with Poor Pizza as the departing dupe.
Departed he did. Successful I was – but not as successful as The Pantry Shelf team.
The Pantry Shelf was first performed in a tiny temporary theatre space at the 2010 Edinburgh Festival and, we're reliably informed by the producers, that there was ‘barely enough space for the five actors', that the food sex had to be toned down and that the whole had to be made ‘more family friendly'. [Reviewed here.]
Tough to create satire with such tangible restrictions but I'm pleased to inform theatre aficionados and gastronomes alike that there is now ample food sex, plenty of space on a most imposing shelf but that, no matter how prissy you might be, this is still a family friendly show even for those contemptible manufacturers of trendy but innutritious victuals whose consciences might well be pricked all the way to the Cayman Islands.
The Pantry Shelf is a satire, albeit a gentle one. It has a barb, it makes its point but it does so in a delightfully robust and theatrical manner. We're left in no doubt about the creator's attitude to branding and labelling, to food content manipulation and to the whole corporate 1% shebang. We agree, of course.
In recent times theatrical satire has proved to be a rarish beast in Aotearoa New Zealand, political satire even more so, with much of our satiric diet being satisfied via social media and syndications of the work of Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and to a lesser extent, Letterman. Quality social satire such is The Pantry Shelf is a welcome theatrical respite from the current bout of navel-gazing and cardy-picking – exceptional though it is – that makes up much of our daily diet of thespian activity.
For this, Team M&M and your delightfully talented ensemble, much thanks, particularly from those of us who fondly remember Amamus, Theatre Action, Red Mole, Blerta, Troupers Live Theatrix, Splinta, Stiff Glue and the shows produced by members of the Downstage company during the 1970s.
It's worth noting that Robert C. Elliott, author of the seminal work on the subject The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, defined satire as holding up to ridicule society's “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.” He goes on to add that satire is “usually meant to be funny, (while) its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon”and he quotes Northrop Frye, the influential Canadian literary critic and theorist, as saying “in satire, irony is militant.”
S.H.Posinsky, in a 1961 review of Elliott's book published in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, goes on to add that satire is “notoriously a slippery term”, has evolved from primitive black magic to literary art and that Freud – who would have loved The Pantry Shelf – has more than a bit to say on the subject.
All this describes The Pantry Shelf to a ‘T' as there are oodles of social criticism all couched in appropriately gastronomic humour of the finest sort and irony reigns supreme.
The set is a delight. Huge cans of brightly coloured supermarket product with labels such as Beano Beans and Winter Soup sit next to massive boxes of Diet Sugar Cubes and Granular Flour.
The key comestibles come to raucous life and we meet the sensuous and self-involved Black Velvet Chocolate (the ever-lovely Rita Stone), an aptly named Wasabi Punch (a scarily angry Michelle Blundell), Carlito Corn Chips (a very funny Ben Van Lier), a down to earth, oat-imbued Paul's Porridge (a disturbingly straight Matt Halliday) and Queenie, the Quinoa, Date and Bark Bar (a suitably naive Marion Shortt).
The writers clearly ignored the admonitions of their parents as they have given these delicious characters even more food to play with as all the performers have other, often contrapuntal, minor roles, thus allowing for an expansion of the play's debate about food content, corporate takeovers, the impact of success on branding, the marketing message, social structures – Breakfast Boulevard is so much more infra dig than Party Food Corner – and the generally acknowledged confidence trick that is at the heart of simple supermarket shopping. There are good guys and villains, the upper crust and the hoi polloi, the richly edible and the downright plastic, the sexy and the straight.
The show is structured around a series of – often short – cameos at the heart of which is a woman called Mandy who is ‘the shopper' and her ever-present lover Geoff. It is rumoured that the love-making of this strangely omnipresent pair may well be enriched by contributions from inhabitants of our pantry shelf but this theme is left suitably vague, formless enough to imply a late night R18 sequel perhaps – but then again, perhaps not.
Each of the foodstuffs has a personal reason for wanting to be chosen by Mandy but only Queenie is truly proud of her nutritional value. As her popularity as a snack bar increases and her sales skyrocket, so her manufacturer consistently reduces her nutritional value until she has to face the fact that she has no dietary value at all. Life is, after all, about selling the brand, making a profit, and the nutritional value of the food itself is of no real importance – except to Queenie, that is, and to her small cohort of staunch supporters.
The Pantry Shelf is rich in tart and pointed social comment and the full house on opening night appreciated every taunt and jibe, which says much for the scripting and the performances because satire of this type can just as easily alienate as it can empower. It's all a matter of degree; of time and timing.
There's mutual mastication and romance too, unrequited until the end, when each character gets their comeuppance in an Occupy Supermarket-ish sort of way.
The costumes (Marion Shortt) are simply stupendous. Each is a work of art and it must be acknowledged that, given the relatively small space that is The Basement stage, the actor's, without exception, manage them with aplomb. Whether clad in box or can or carton there was no sense of discomfort or unease and the actors move freely through the available space which adds considerably to the success of the evening.
If I were to find myself in Mandy's supermarket, I'd certainly have a trolley full of all these delicious performances and, without too much coercive marketing, I might even indulge in an extra helping of Black Velvet Chocolate and an additional hit of Wasabi Punch. I'd talk to them of course, because the programme says I must.
The Pantry Shelf is like an unexpected brunch. It's rich and fulfilling with more than a few unexpected delights, and it's eminently digestible. The message works its magic in a largely inoffensive way and will, I suspect, be presented to audiences of the already converted. There's nothing wrong in this, of course.
The Pantry Shelf is well stocked and open for business. Expect it to appear soon at a fringe festival near you.
The Pantry Shelf - 2010 at Sweet Venues, Edinburgh Fringe
Three Weeks - **** 4/5
The Pantry Shelf Team M & M "Are you saying I need to sex up my oats?" is just one of the comedic, food-based lines that make this conceptually clever piece so enjoyable. Immediately thrust into the madcap world of talking food, the play begins with the awakening screech of a wasabi pea tub and doesn't look back. Soon, we are presented with the hilariously varied ways in which corn chips, chocolate, peas, a quinoa bar and porridge oats could advertise themselves as viable snacks for purchaser Mandy. Although the large number of blackouts and lack of room slightly slow the pace, any loss of atmosphere is made up for by the buzzing delivery of every line. A feast for the eyes, and very much worth a watch.
When they first appear on stage, you would be forgiven for thinking the characters dressed in gigantic food costumes are about to perform a slapstick sketch show or take part in some reenactment of It’s A Knockout.
Peel back the outer layers of packaging on Team M&M’s The Pantry Shelf however, and you’ll uncover a sharply-written and funny satire on commercialism and the food industry. With a giant tub of wasabi peas and genetically-enhanced tomatoes.
Written by husband and wife team Marion Shortt and Mark Prebble, the Edinburgh-based company provide 55 minutes of clever and comedic entertainment as new arrival – Queenie the Quinoa, Date & Bark Bar – discovers the hidden secrets & politics of the shelves as the foods compete for the attention of the unseen human pantry-owner Mandy.
During this tale of chips and chocolate, everything from binge eating to genetically-modified food is satirised by a cast who are not only obviously having fun playing their parts, but also show themselves to be fine comic actors.
Shortt herself plays Queenie as she comes to terms with the decline of her nutritional value, consoled and comforted by an excellent Robert Howatt as the sheepish Paul’s Porridge – who really wants to leave the rest of the breakfast foods behind and join in the fun of the party snacks. Adrienne Zitt exudes a smooth and seductive sheen as the snooty Black Velvet Chocolate; whilst Ewan Law is greatly entertaining as the slightly manic Carlito’s Corn Chips.
Emma Mclennan packs a mighty wallop as the hyperactive Wasabi Punch peas, and the whole ensemble double up as other characters, including gossipping cans, aloof milk cartons and forgotten jars of out-of-date cough syrup.
The set is big, bold and colourful and suits the tone of the piece perfectly, which contains a great mixture of wit, comedy and satirical ingredients to create a rather tasty show you’d be daft to leave on the shelf.
The Pantry Shelf is a bright, fun production that gets lots of comedic mileage out of its unique premise: Deep within the pantry on the impulse buy shelf lives talking food products such as wasabi peas, velvet chocolate and Mexican chips who are all desperate to be eaten by their owner, Mandy. They have been with her for a long time so they all know her food fads and where they each stand in the popularity stakes, till a new quinea, date and bark bar finds itself the number one choice when Mandy is having a snack attack.
Written by Mark Pebble and Marion Shortt who have created an amusing world that on the surface is a simple love story between a health bar and dull but reliable porridge but slowly reveals its true satirical colours. Hidden behind the good humour are some fascinating insights into consumerism, the lure of bright new packing, media manipulation and barbed observations about the food industry.
It also has just as much to say about peoples’ shopping habits as the audience in between giggling will be slowly recognising their caffeine addiction, keeping out of date bottles hidden at the back of the shelf and diet fads.
While technically underwhelming, using minimal lighting and a simple static painted set, the show is reliant on the actors in their big and bright costumes to bring the show alive. At this they succeed, bringing infectious enthusiasm and good humour, even if they do rattle through their lines with little regard for comedy timing or consistent accents. They are very watchable, their under polished slap-dash style just adding to the fun.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking play that won’t leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Despite the silly, kids' TV show premise of this ensemble play, it's actually a fun and frivolous piece performed with a lightly humorous touch, answering the previously unasked question - what if the contents of your larder could talk?
In this case, it seems, the excitable Wasabi Punch will go about giving everyone a dead arm, Black Velvet Chocolate will gaze snootily down her nose and old Gooey Cough Syrup will languish in the dark purgatory where unloved foods go to go off. Meanwhile, young and fashionable Queenie (the Quinoa, Date and Bark bar) and boring old Porridge fall in unlikely love.
Team M&M (Edinburgh-based Kiwi duo Mark Prebble and Marion Shortt, the latter always bright and entertaining as Queenie) have created a piece which is well-crafted, likable and charismatic.
An array of great costumes and an interactive backdrop help bring this quirky world to vivid life, but it's the delightfully skilled five-part acting company who truly make it what it is. With or without kids with you, that means a whole load of fun.