Are You Being Served? Maison Foo at Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Technically, the presentation of a few selected scenes from Maison Foo‘s work in progress Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium took place at the College Street Studio Theatre, just off Wellington Circus in Nottingham. But having made my way through the corridors of a labyrinthine building to find it, and then stepped through the theatre door into what resembles the kind of charity shop you’d normally find on a small town high street, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the piece takes place in a shop that just happens to have strayed inside a black box theatre space.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Maison Foo are upfront about the reasons why. Part of the show’s development involved actually opening a shop (in Derby) that purported to sell things and offer no-strings attached conversation while not-so secretly collecting material from its customers: a kind of real world version of Amazon or Facebook, you might say, the latter being sort-of replicated in photos and Post-It Notes on one wall inside the venue. The company admit to having strayed into conventional theatre spaces from street performance, too. It isn’t the first time, by a long way, but it’s an adjustment they acknowledge they’re still trying to work out in fine detail, testing what carries from one context to another.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

In one sense, then, the fact that I’m watching a rehearsal for the later public performance proves useful, in that where other Hatch works in progress have been seen as self-contained pieces, albeit ones at early stages in their likely evolution, Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium is caught in flux. At four in the afternoon, with the public sharing due to get started in a couple of hours’ time, I’m here rifling through their sketchbooks and hearing the discussions in a raw form. There’s a mismatch between what I’m describing and the visual record, too, but perhaps the text, this time round, gives a bit of background to the images rather than traces a path through the same performance seen in the photographs beside it.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

The presentation tonight, I’m told, is going to focus on three distinct scenes, one of which is being changed and reshaped when I arrive. Set up as a kind of Jane Austen-referencing TV advert for a product called ‘Iron On Tape’, it involves a fair bit of slapstick, a dash of music hall and some seaside-postcard bawdy business with one performer’s bosom, all played with parodic BBC costume-drama dialogue and exaggeratedly quivering lips in a heavy mist of sprayed water. What’s intriguing is seeing how something clearly meant to look off-hand and slapdash goes through so many refinements on its way to a version they’ll be happy with later.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

With that scene still not entirely resolved, they decide to go for a run through, leading us in as the audience will be brought into the venue shortly. A bell rings, music plays, and we’re invited to walk onto the stage and examine the shop’s goods while three assistants glide around us telling us how perfectly a shell suit, black top hat and beaded handbag will suit us before we’re directed to our seats. A routine with the trio performing further sales pitches follows, sweeping down the aisles to put hats on our heads or shoes on our feet, and these appeals morph into that Jane Austen TV advert, which is still trying out new details and configurations.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

A discussion follows, in which the three performers (a fourth Maison Foo member is unavailable today because his day job is a role in the Nottingham Playhouse pantomime that happens to be taking place down the road) answer questions about their intentions and plans for the piece, while introducing the next section we’ll see. It’s about retail, but also, they hope, an exploration – perhaps Dickensian in intention – of ideas around personal choice and economic necessity. This signals a darker turn, from the broad humour of the Austen parody into Grimm’s Fairy Tale territory, a back-story told using shadow puppets, a recorded interview with a fictional baby-trafficker and cabaret accordion music.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Given that only a disparate group of brief fragments is on show during this sharing session, both as I see it in rehearsal and later, it’s impossible to grasp the intended whole or judge how this swerve in tone will work in a more complete version. Can the Acorn Antiques and Donald McGill seaside-postcard tone of the early scenes on view tonight really gel comfortably with the grotesquerie of the shadow-play and such serious themes as capitalist exploitation, moral hazard and the buying and selling of babies in fictional Eastern European countries?

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Perhaps. After all, I was reminded occasionally (most starkly, when the piano accordion was brought out, in a clear echo of the Tiger Lilies) of Improbable Theatre’s late nineties carnival of bad taste, Shockheaded Peter, a piece whose weave of absurdist slapstick, Lynchian musical cabaret and spectacular set-pieces that all revolved around the horrible deaths of small children, pretty much defined a whole new genre all by itself. The gory details and strange tone might have been lifted from a respectable nineteenth century German physician’s enormously successful book of of moral warnings aimed at susceptible children, but the performance turned the hectoring morality of its model on its head to gloriously compelling effect.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Invoking Shockheaded Peter, a coup de theatre that even its own makers have never really managed to get close to matching, let alone anyone else, certainly sets the bar high for Maison Foo, though it’s one they’ve clearly taken into account, not least in the aesthetic of Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin. But if this suggests a recognition of possibilities already visible in the embryonic Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium, it also recognises that the reduced technical and financial resources available might lead to a very different, perhaps more resourceful approach, where Improbable’s finest hour could find itself taunted in much the same way as Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth’s Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy are ridiculed elsewhere here.

Maison Foo at Hatch [photo credit Julian Hughes]

Besides, the company are clear that they’re still experimenting with the right mix of street and stage, fourth wall and audience interaction, in their performances and they seem to know perfectly well that if you can’t clear a high bar, you might still be able to make an effective routine out of the feigned run up and the falling on your arse. At this point, it seems Pendulum’s Bargain Emporium is most comfortable and sure of itself in the lighter moments, when the humour’s broad and the intended effect on its audience is clear. Maybe this is the best possible reason for venturing much further into that darkness and seeing what happens there.

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