Reviews: Life Shop Till You Drop!

Sara Keating, The Irish Times (Friday 29th May 2009)
Wonderland Theatre For theatre companies such as Wonderland, who are used to fending for themselves, the recession and funding cuts are not seen as a threat. Artistic director Alice Coghlan tells SARA KEATING about creating ambitious shows on a shoestring

WE DIDN’T HEAR much about “independent theatre” during the boom years, when expanding budgets across government departments was translated into increases in State subsidies for artists and arts organisations. But now that those budgets are shrinking again, Arts Council-funded organisations are struggling to maintain their prolific output under new financial conditions. With once-crowded theatre calendars begin to thin out as a consequence of, and in fear of further, funding cuts, it is an opportunity for independent theatre companies – seasoned to shoestring budgets and a skeleton production staff – to make their mark. Wonderland Theatre is one such company which seems to be coming into its own.

Wonderland, under the artistic direction of director and writer Alice Coghlan, has produced 10 new theatre productions since 2003, productions which have been as varied in form as in artistic style. They have ranged from traditional stagings of ghost stories to obscure sound-art performance pieces, and from intimate lunchtime operas to site-specific productions of Molière’s famous French comedies. Take, for example, two of the company’s most recent productions: a new translation of an obscure Italian restoration comedy, La Locandiera (or Mirandolina ), by Carlo Goldoni, accompanied by a four-course dining experience, and a one-act, one-woman, self-help spoof, Life Shop Till You Drop , which embarks on its fourth national tour this week.

While the ongoing success of Life Shop Till You Drop comes as a constant surprise to Coghlan, who wrote and first directed the show in 2007, she says that Wonderland “have always been very ambitious about what we want to achieve, no matter what the project is, no matter how little funding there is to support us”.

“Even so, when we first produced it at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre and Alan King suggested we take a three-week run, we thought there was no way that we would fill the venue. In the end it was the best-selling show that Bewley’s ever had, and it has become more successful rather than less successful the more we have produced it. It’s even been to Abu Dhabi! When we were on tour in Navan, someone from the Irish society there saw it, and invited us to bring it over to entertain the expats.”

Coghlan puts the show’s success down to the constant “quest for happiness” in contemporary society. “It taps into that neurotic side of us that is always looking for advice, or wondering what someone else would say or do,” she says. “But it questions it too, and also satirises the whole self-help industry, which is making billions out of our need to be happy. It’s basically saying that we need to take charge of our own destiny.”

The optimism of the show chimes well with Wonderland’s philosophy of creating work from meagre means. “I wish I could say it was some great decision not to get funded,” Coughlan jokes, “but the truth is we have tried. You know, we could have produced another show in the time we’ve spent filling out funding application forms, but we haven’t had any luck, despite great reviews and strong audiences for all our work. But all of the established companies – Rough Magic, Loose Canon, Bedrock – they all had to start from somewhere. Not being funded and finding other ways to do your work, whether that’s through profit-share or whatever, is just part of the process. We still have to make the best show that we can.”

In fact, the success of Life Shop Till You Drop has played a vital part in the company’s growth, as it is touring that provides it with some security in terms of income.

“When we tour, we are booked and paid by the venue, so it cuts the risk for us and means that we can all be paid properly and put whatever extra we make back into our next show,” Coghlan says. “And at this stage the show pretty much runs itself, so I can go down and set it all up with Clodagh but still have time for other projects.”

AND SO, as Life Shop Till You Drop heads off this week on another tour, Coghlan begins another Wonderland adventure, perhaps the company’s most ambitious yet: a site-specific production of Brendan Behan’s iconic but rarely produced Irish classic, The Hostage , at the newly renovated Pearse Centre on Pearse Street, the house where Pádraig Pearse lived until he was 12.

The month-long run, with a massive cast, will surely pose a big financial challenge for the company, but Wonderland is used to dealing with such eventualities. The production will fill a gap in the summer calendar, as more established theatre companies slim down their schedules in anticipation of the ever more difficult funding climate to come.

Roz Butler, Dublin Metro  (23rd January 2007)  ✮✮✮✮
Are you a self-help junkie? If so perhaps you could do with a little detox. This cautionary tale offers the perfect solution. Ailish McGovern (Clodagh Reid) is a girl who seems to practise more self-hindrance than self-help, and her story might ensure that you turn your back on pop psychology once and for all.

Recruitment Consultant Ailsih is 36 and single. Since the death of her father over a year ago, she has become very vulnerable. To cushion her grief she obsessively turns to self-help manuals in order to improve her life. Whether it comes to the trials of dating or tribulations of the work place, this girl has a text book to help her deal with every conceivable situation. She can barely step out the door without seeking advice from one guru or another. When she meets the man of her dreams, she goes into overdrive, manipulating situations so that he can see she’s clearly the one. The consequences are disastrous.

Ailish is like a little girl lost. Behind the biting comedy, Reid portrays with great understanding a lonely woman who is struggling to come to terms with her grief. As a result no matter how ridiculous Ailsih’s predicaments become, one always feels sympathy for her plight. And yet the only tears shed are ones of hilarious laughter. While there are undoubtedly touching elements to the play, the overriding tone is light and fun, thanks to Alice Coghlan’s wonderfully feel-good script and Reid’s ability to inhabit a number of comic characters, from Ailish’s irritating boss to her chain smoking matchmaker.

Edel Coffey, Sunday Tribune (21st January 2007)
January is an apt time to see a play about the evils of self-help books and new years resolutions. So Life Shop till you Drop, a one-woman show that casts a satirical eye over one year in the life of single thirty-something Ailish McGovern (played by Clodagh Reid), is a salutory lesson in what not to read.

McGovern has vowed 2007 will be the year she finds love, a promotion and ultimately happiness. Armed with nine of the best-selling self help books she aimshigh – to be branch manager of her recruitment agency, get married and win the Irish Tatler Woman of the Year award.

Writer and director Alice Coghlan’s clever script and pitch perfect self-help jargon are a delight, colourfully illustrating how we unconsciously use these phrases in our everyday home and work life.

There are funny portrayals of desperate singletons, with Ailish coming off like a manic Bridget Jones (scary thought), taking “Me Days” off work so she can do some “motivational crying”. Amidst the laughs, Coghlan makes the more serious point that most of the advice in these self help books is rubbish – and in the case of Ailish can do more harm than good. But she’s also pointing an accusatory finger at wider society. It’s not just the pop psychologists who are to blame for young women’s unhappiness with the single life but the “singles police” too – the mothers and married siblings who put pressure on those longing to find a soul mate, not to mention the modern-day pressure society puts on women to “have it all”: husband, children, career, oh, and that Woman of the Year Award.

This is a comic satire however and there are plenty of laughs , such as when Ailish finds out the man she is seeing is married with a child. Her sister tells her, “You’re just like that book Mam got us for Christmas you’re a woman who loves too much”. Underneath the laughs though Alice Coghlan questions whether the self-help industry has helped us or whether it has actually duped us into creating neuroses that were never there in the first place, putting off the men that may otherwise have been interested in us … and quite possibly ruining our chances of happiness.

Gerry Colgan, The Irish Times (January 19th 2007)
This one-hour lunchtime play, written and directed by Alice Coghlan, gets off to a neat start. A vivacious 36-year old woman in the audience leaps to her feet to receive an award – Tatler Woman of the Year. She is impelled to share her story of her success, and begins a year earlier when she identified two objectives: to get married and to get promoted.

Ailish is riddled with intellectual and verbal clichés such as ‘think in ink’ – writing them down will help us to remember her pearls of wisdom. For the matrimonial stakes she goes to a modern matchmaker, who fixes her up with dubious partners. Ailish learns that she has to kiss a lot of frogs to find her prince. On the job front, she is hired by a recruitment consultancy firm, which demands that you recruit more employees and keep doubling up to make any money. But it gives her a nice title to peddle to men at the dating agencies as she pursues her rules in shopping for life’s rewards. We follow Ailish through increasingly desperate initiatives until the play ends as it began, with a surprise.

It seems that the self-help industry is now a commercial reality, generating huge profits from the inchoate desires of people to be happy and successful. This gives the play a satirical edge, although its exaggerations are rooted in farce. Clodagh Reid plays Ailish with comic versatility, generating continuous laughter.


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