Chloe Marschner

There’s something a bit unusual about reviewing a show like Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area – it almost feels after-the-fact to review shows that have already made their mark at the Fringe, especially those with the degree of success this show has had in Edinburgh. Or at least, this was my worry going in. Having seen it, I’m actually glad to have the chance to thoroughly recommend the show to anyone who missed its original run. It’s genuinely funny, well-conceived and features excellent performances all round.

As its title suggests, Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area is a musical comedy which unfolds in a supermarket. Vicki (Jamie Williams) and Nicki (Joe Pieri), respectively twice and thrice divorced, work at the checkouts; Phyllis ‘the fish girl’ (Sophie Foote) works as the fishmonger; perfectionist Bridget (Annabelle Haworth) from the bakery has been promoted to floor manager; Karen (Ella Burns) is a mysterious cat food-eating old woman (does she even work here?); and ‘Sally from the salad bar’ (Amaya Holman) is not all that she appears. As the store struggles to rid itself of vermin, ‘Sally’ reveals herself to be secretly planning the store’s demise through health code violations. Meanwhile, the much overlooked Phyllis confesses her love for Bridget, who is far too wrapped up in herself to notice or care. As the pressure mounts to keep the store in business, the staff decide to throw together a fundraiser, and the chaos grows into a hilarious and heart-warming finale

The success of the show comes down to the strength of the material and the thought put into its execution. Laurence T-Stannard’s score is upbeat in an homage to an array of different musical theatre styles, which are expertly blended together to balance the show’s comedy and its more touching moments. Meanwhile, Jamie Bisping and Amaya Holman’s script is quirky, unabashedly filthy in places, but most of all relentlessly witty. Caroline Yu’s direction handles both the dialogue and the songs well, fast-paced enough to keep the energy up but allowing each joke a sense of impeccable timing that doesn’t feel rushed, and Lucy Thompson’s choreography does an excellent job of matching T-Stannard’s score, as it moves between different musical styles.

“Haworth’s ability to take both facets of her character in her stride demonstrates impressive comic and dramatic range.”

The show is also wonderfully well-cast; there isn’t a single weak link and, while each character feels totally distinct, collectively they still manage to merge into a cohesive ensemble. Williams and Pieri have undeniable chemistry, bouncing off one another with ease, while Haworth’s Bridget was perhaps my favourite member of this motley crew. Desperately insecure but simultaneously in love with herself, Bridget is played both as a caricature of perfectionism (hilariously expressed through some well-executed operatic soprano cadenzas) and someone who really grows over the course of the show, and Haworth’s ability to take both facets of her character in her stride demonstrates impressive comic and dramatic range. The pairing of Bridget with Foote’s loveable but awkward Phyllis is genuinely sweet while managing to avoid feeling clichéd; on one level they are the generic romantic pair we expect from a musical, but on another their romance really does feel organic and brings out the best in both of them. The more outlandish roles of Karen and ‘Sally’, a.k.a Luci Furr, were also tackled well. Burns’ first entry in particular showed off her excellent sense of comic timing, while Holman had much of the show’s zaniest material to get through and did so successfully, managing to be consistently entertaining and showcasing some powerful vocals.

The technical side of the show complimented the on-stage action well: Michelle Spielberg and Theo Heymann’s minimalist set provided a clever means of simply moving between locations; Heymann’s lights were well timed to bring out the shifts between moods, while Dmitry Bashtanov’s sound design proved particularly funny in the final scene, in which an absurd blend of sounds brought to life the off-stage role of Prudence, Karen’s long-missing cat. 


Mountain View

The Footlights certainly Look Alive! in their International Tour Show

This is, simply put, a very good show; evidently much thought has been put into every aspect of the material and the staging, and the cast is nothing short of stellar. My only quibble was with the dialogue in the final scene, which I felt stretched on for a little too long and tried to rationalise an absurd conclusion, which I was already more than happy to go along with without it being strictly believable. Perhaps the trimming down of a couple of lines might have helped the pacing here, but I think this is at most a very minor issue and possibly a consequence of the 11pm slot, as I couldn’t help feeling a little worn out by that point (though it’s entirely possible I was alone in that).

The huge laughs and applause throughout demonstrated just how much the audience was enjoying the performance, and I was only surprised my how many seats were left empty – this one deserves to sell out. 

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