If you thought a supermarket was nothing more than a place to pick up a pint of milk, think again. Happy To Help by Michael Ross opens the door to Frisca, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, and takes us behind the scenes for one dramatic week, to reveal the internal politics and daily power struggles hidden behind the brand’s cheerful public face. It’s a sharp, clever comedy but with a serious message, in which the huge corporation is likened to an autocratic state, where speaking out against the regime can have dire consequences.
UK managing director Tony (Charles Armstrong) is doing his Secret Millionaire bit, on the advice of American boss Huck (David Bauckham), going behind the scenes at a Frisca branch to mingle with the workers. But little does he know that store manager Vicky (Katherine Kotz) has her own agenda… Meanwhile disgruntled employees Elliott (Jonny Weldon) and Myra (Rachel Marwood) are whispering about unions, and wannabe rockstar Josh (Ben Mann) has no intention of sticking around for long, even if he is everyone’s favourite shelf-stacker. For Frisca’s customers, it’ll be just another week, but behind the scenes everything’s about to change as a hilarious, shocking and unsettling chain of events is set in motion.
In a fantastic cast, Katherine Kotz gives a stand-out performance as the manipulative Vicky; with a sunny smile that never reaches her eyes, she prowls the stage, a figure of absolute authority and control – but with a slightly manic air that suggests she could lose it at any moment. Ben Mann also shines as the brashly confident Josh, who thinks he’s got it made by being teacher’s pet. The confrontation between Vicky and Josh at the end of Act 1 is masterfully constructed and performed; much like Josh, we don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late.
Perhaps the biggest personality on stage, though – both literally (the brand name is emblazoned across Emma Tompkins’ set) and figuratively – is Frisca itself, a business so wildly successful that it’s come to dominate every area of our lives, without ever pausing to consider who might be suffering as a result. Directed by Roxy Cook, the play skilfully contrasts Frisca’s shiny public image with the less than glamorous reality, in which employees are devalued, dissatisfied, and anything but ‘happy to help’. Each scene change is punctuated by a soundtrack of till beeps and monotonous store announcements, and there’s even a perky (and frustratingly catchy) Frisca song. It’s a world governed by ridiculous rules and regulations, whose absurdity is hammered home by Tony – the man who wrote them – now having to abide by them.
But Happy To Help, which was shortlisted for the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize in 2015, is also a stark warning about the power that big businesses are allowed to wield over both us as consumers and the smaller firms that get in their way. As much as we may laugh watching the play, it actually paints a pretty bleak picture, and though the twist in the tale isn’t difficult to see coming, it still makes a powerful point. And it may make you think twice about ever setting foot in a supermarket again… at least until the next time you run out of milk, anyway.
Happy To Help is at Park Theatre until 9th July.