What does success look like? What does it feel like? And if you achieve whatever you think success is, is it guaranteed to make you happy? These are all questions expertly dissected in Margaret Perry’s Paradise Now!, in which six women are brought together by a multi-level marketing scheme selling essential oils. Gabriel (Michele Moran) is recovering from a period of severe depression when she meets the ambitious Alex (Shazia Nicholls), who’s on the lookout for “dedicated, ferocious women” to join her Paradise Pack. Fired up by her newfound purpose, Gabriel finds to her surprise that her unorthodox sales technique actually works – but will climbing the ranks at Paradise help her achieve her goal of helping her younger sister Baby (Carmel Winters) to finally get some sleep?
Inspired by Gabriel’s success, wannabe TV presenter Carla (Ayoola Smart) also joins the group, despite the scepticism of her girlfriend Anthie (Annabel Baldwin), while Alex quickly comes to regret her decision to invite old school acquaintance Laurie (Rakhee Thakrar) into the team. Despite obviously simmering tensions, somehow the six women find their way together to Paradise Now!, the company’s annual conference in Brighton – but when they get there, building a human pyramid turns out to be the least of their problems.
Margaret Perry brilliantly takes what sounds on paper like a pretty mundane scenario and makes it fascinating, by focusing not on Paradise but on the people who are drawn to it. Each character has their own motivations and insecurities, and it’s these details, skilfully uncovered little by little, that drive the plot forward and keep us engaged despite a lengthy run time of 2 hours 40 minutes. The three core relationships that make up the narrative are infinitely relatable – two sisters, two lovers, and two old “friends” with very little in common – and the journey they take together is just extreme enough to maintain our interest without ever straying too far from plausible reality. And although Paradise – represented by the voice of mythical “She-E-O” Fiona Franks (Martha Plimpton) – is always portrayed as a shadowy, dangerous presence, Alex isn’t completely wrong when she claims that “these women have become my family”. For all its faults, the scheme does offer some comfort and companionship to people who desperately need it, and this cautionary tale is not without unexpected moments of joy.
Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s production is equally clever and nuanced; like Perry’s script, it walks the line between comedy and tragedy, and skilfully portrays the often vast dichotomy between appearance and reality. This comes across in the performances of the excellent cast, who deliver their lines with a smile while their body language and facial expressions tell a very different story, resulting in some moments that are hilarious, and others that are heartbreaking. This is echoed too in Rosie Elnile’s set design; at first glance a bland conference room, it quickly proves to be full of all kinds of surprises. Slick scene changes are maximised to the full, offering us further insight into the characters’ lives and personalities even when they’re not saying a word.
If the play has a flaw it’s that it possibly has too much to say. Each of the six characters has their own complex story to tell, and there simply isn’t time to delve into them all as deeply as we’d like to. This leaves the audience with more than a few loose ends as the evening draws to a close, with secrets hinted at but never revealed, and personal anecdotes shared but then never picked up again. But then again, if this play teaches us anything, it’s that true satisfaction comes at a cost – and there’s so much to enjoy in this vibrant new production that filling in a few gaps seems a small price to pay.
Paradise Now! is at Bush Theatre until 21st January.