Market Boy @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Danny Worters
Claire Rushbrook
Gary McDonald
Jonathan Cullen
Callum Dixon
Paul Moriarty
Freddy White
Andrew Frame
John Marquez
Owen Oakeshott
Jade Williams

directed by
Rufus Norris
There’s no messing about in Market Boy. Right from the start you know what you’re in for: a crudely amusing and gaudy odyssey through the dark heart of the decade of shellsuits, bad perms and rampant capitalism – the 1980s.

Writer David Eldridge and director Rufus Norris, the creative team behind the excellent Festen, have swerved away from small scale naturalism. This is ‘Monsterist’ theatre – big cast, big themes, and performed in the biggest of the National’s three venues, the Olivier. The opening scenes are undeniably impressive. To the unmistakable beat of Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, a transit van bursts through a Tory campaign poster, unleashing a gaggle of scrawny market traders who begin erecting a market stall from scratch in the centre of the stage.

This is a bustling busy production, featuring thirty performers and a far higher number of characters. Romford Market, where Eldridge once worked, acts as a microcosm of 80s tastes and trends as well as a canvas for the political shifts of the decade. One of the market traders scuttles off to become a city boy but soon comes crawling back after the boom years are over. A cartoonish Thatcher occasionally stalks the stage, assaulting unfortunates with her handbag and, at one point, leading the cast in a rendition of We’re Walking In The Air.

At the heart of all this chaos and colour is the Market Boy himself, a thirteen year old kid coaxed into getting a job on a shoe stall by his mum. Here, he’s mentored by the charismatic Trader (Gary McDonald), dodges the verbal and physical blows of a ferocious market inspector and loses his cherry to local girl, before losing her. Plot-wise there’s little else to it. The characters remain very thinly sketched, something that becomes increasingly apparent in the second half when the laughs slow up somewhat and the play asks us to start caring about these people.

Danny Worters has an amiable blankness as the boy, but though he’s supposed to have become a man by the end of the evening, there was little trace of change in his performance. Of the supporting cast Paul Moriarty is suitably fearsome as the market inspector and Sophie Stanton is amusing as a transsexual fishmonger, as is Jonathan Cullen playing a patriotic meat man, but these are little more than cameos.

The staging is the real star. Katrina Lindsay’s ambitious design fills the Olivier stage with steel ladders and the gaudy buzz of a busy market. The way the performers use this space is amazingly inventive, choreographed and coordinated by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett from the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly. And all this, of course, takes place to an impeccably 80s soundtrack as hit after hit blared from the onstage ghetto-blaster.

Market Boy is, at times very, very funny – but they’re often quite easy laughs. There’s only so far you can go, referencing Sinclair C5s and Grange Hill. (The market boy’s considered reasoning for turing down a tab of ecstasy is: “Look what happened to Zammo.”) On occasion the whole thing felt like an extended Harry Enfield sketch, the humour pitched at the same level of crude caricature.

The play contains some interesting asides about the Romany roots of market life and never falls into the trap of wallowing in unquestioning nostalgia in the manner of those endless I Love The 80s Channel 4 marathons, but it’s lacking in heart, there’s little to it bar spectacle. Still for a tenner a ticket, it’s worth a look – this is the second production in this year’s Travelex 10 season (after Trevor Nunn’s The Royal Hunt Of The Sun) – a great scheme that could do with being emulated elsewhere in the West End.

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