A long line of people snakes glumly toward the unemployment office beneath the banner headline “LABOUR ISN’T WORKING.” That image, created by Saatchi & Saatchi for the Conservative party in 1978, was plastered across billboards the length and breadth of Britain. Acknowledged to be responsible in part for the 1979 election result that catapulted Margaret Thatcher to power, in 1999 it was voted the advertising poster of the century. And, at the deceptively chilly start of David Eldridge’s wildly exuberant new play “Market Boy,” it’s the only thing on the vast, bare Olivier stage — until a real blue van suddenly bursts through it from nowhere and drives to the edge of the stage, and Rufus Norris’ production lets rip.
The powerhouse bump ‘n’ grind of “Relax” by ’80s sensation Frankie Goes to Hollywood fills the auditorium; the stage revolves, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone shoots roving, hard white lights through the haze, and three white lads leap from the van to set up a market stall. Yelling and swinging from a giant scaffolding bridge like monkeys, they’re filled with energy, foul-mouthed and up for it. Working together again after the U.K. success and U.S. flop of “Festen,” Eldridge and director Norris winningly put the boy into boisterous.
The central character, after all, is Boy (Danny Worters), a 13-year-old pushed into a job on the market by his struggling mum (Claire Rushbrook). He and the audience are swiftly seduced and drawn into the dangerously exciting swagger of a working-class world of opportunity where everything is up for grabs. It’s boom time in the mid-1980s, and even on the shoe stall that becomes Danny’s second home, there’s money to be made and no time like the present.
We’re in the era of the free-market economy; although its guru Milton Friedman doesn’t appear, its high priestess does. To the rousing strains of Elgar’s “Nimrod,” on comes Nicola Blackwell in pumps, navy blue suit, giant fake forehead and sculpted wig as Margaret Thatcher. There she is again, burning rubber in a sports car that comes tearing in from the wings in a bustier with Conservative party rosettes affixed to each nipple; or descending bat-like from the flies at the superbly staged, flag-waving climax to persnickety meat-seller Jonathan Cullen’s gloriously absurd volcanic spoken hymn to the endless possibilities of the Market.
Subtlety? Certainly not, but the get-rich-quick ’80s weren’t about hanging around to refine your argument. This was the era that legitimized greed in Thatcher’s proud decree that “there is no such thing as society.” In fact, this is less a detailed William Shakespeare study of societal decline, more a “Billy Elliot”-style cartwheeling cartoon.
Indeed, choreography powers the staging of what is a simple scenario: Boy’s sentimental education played out against the boom-bust economy in an Essex market. Norris and Eldridge have been developing this show, part of the Travelex £10 season, over four years at the National Theater studio. The hallmark of that development is the way they have freed the play from dully literal storytelling.
The invigorating athleticism of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of genre-bending physical theater company Frantic Assembly is all over it. Picking up the self-styled Most Beautiful Woman in Romford (marvelously leggy, bottle-blonde Jemma Walker), Gary McDonald’s warmly benign Trader actually tucks her up under his arm and slides her sideways into the van like a startled ironing board.
That physical humor is not confined to the agile cast. Katrina Lindsay’s design sees stalls on wheels almost dancing across the stage, and costume designer Harriet Barsby has fun with the increasing amounts of day-glo color from the decade that taste forgot.
Eldridge’s first half is a kaleidoscopic nostalgia-fest. Boom years’ hopes are accompanied by witty snatches of the era’s pop hits as 31 actors have a whale of a time larking their way through 50 loudmouthed roles. There are comic cameos galore, from John Marquez as Steve the Nutter morphing hilariously from serious headcase into a blissed-out Ecstasy dealer, to manic Sophie Stanton as a furious pre-op transsexual fish stallholder.
Despite the packed gallery of one-offs, the entire production meshes to an utterly exhilarating degree.
Long before the end, it’s clear Eldridge’s script is not too much more than a reflection of its times. In both its freewheeling form and content, this extraordinarily grand-scale, wholly British play is the obverse of Caryl Churchill’s tightly plotted ’80s anthem “Serious Money,” which also looked at what happened to the free market via market traders.
Churchill’s eye was on the market lads who turned themselves into money-making yuppie traders. Only one of Eldridge’s boys takes that route and, in common with the times, it turns out to be disastrous. By the final desolate scene, the good times have rolled by.
Boy’s ideals have moved on. He’s grown up. Or has he? He’s certain he’s going to make lots of money. The poster across the back wall is now the ’90s “Hello Boys” Wonderbra ad. That notorious, car-stopping campaign came 10th in the poster-of-the-century poll. That’s the only thing that’s 10th-rate about this sharp-toothed romp.