As the financial chill cuts even deeper and credit cards buckle under the strain of present-buying, performance group Duckie’s immersive satire on the cult of Christmas consumerism – directed by Mark Whitelaw and designed by Robin Whitemore – should be a belt-tighteningly relevant experience. But beneath the colour and the glitter, it is a disappointingly un-engaging and meandering affair.
After being ushered into the bowels of the Barbican by shoulder-padded security guards in reflective shades and bushy yellow wigs, you are welcomed to the opening of new store Copyright Christmas by its highly strung manager, Carol. What follows is part funfair ride, part Pilgrim’s Progress as you are taken in groups on a semi-allegorical trip through the shop’s demented departments and meet its freakish denizens.
Each station on the route tackles a different aspect of the commoditisation of Christmas; from a manic invitation to register for store loyalty card ELF (Ethically Limited Finance) to enticements to buy beauty products made – it is strongly implied – from human blood. These jabs are as predictable as their targets, but they are in keeping with a sprawling set that is less Santa’s grotto and more Santa’s sweatshop. Dead-eyed employees wander around like broken mannequins, dressed as elves and bearing vacant smiles.
The show works best when it pulls you directly into its ludicrous and, at times, grotesque world. Particularly effective is an early sequence in which some of you are hived off and squashed into a life-sized plastic bag to be jostled and abused as cheap and worthless by an embittered can of own-brand chopped tomatoes. The cramped space and macabre costume design (think ‘recently flayed’ rather than Ragu-in-waiting) make for an absurd but surprisingly unsettling experience.
Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between. Without much of a narrative to speak of (early murmurings of a workforce revolution drop away until the end) you want to be hooked by the ideas on show. But either the conceit feels stretched – as with the frankly baffling room devoted to ‘sweet solutions’ and sugar cubes – or what is being parodied is already so absurd that the attempt feel superfluous. In the end, nothing sends up the conventions of a 24-hour shopping channel better than a 24-hour shopping channel.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the show’s pace. From the acrobatics that kick start proceedings to the roll-call of bizarre and clownish figures tempting you to part with your cash, this is as much the travelling carnival of lore, carefully updated for the twenty-first century, as a department store; a place of misrule inspired by a dozen cautionary tales, filled with whoops, cheers and leering faces. But this atmosphere is squandered by the sheer amount of time you spend queuing and shuffling between places. The sensation of being on a slow-moving conveyor belt can be overwhelming.
Copyright Christmas provides a crazy-mirror reflection of the world, boasting some striking visuals and a physically adept cast skilled at mining situations for their off-kilter comic potential. But its inconsistent feel and lethargic pace mean that, ultimately, it is less effective than Oxford Street in December at presenting a picture of festive consumer hell.