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Shakespeare’s supermarket sweep

An imaginative troupe of actors takes over (where else?) Sainsbury’s for the afternoon.

Cultural snobs might think that Lewisham and Shakespeare make queer bedfellows: more a case of what blighter through yonder window breaks. But here I am, in an overlit and underheated Sainsbury's in south London, waiting for the Bard's appearance.

It's Sunday afternoon, the store thrums with herds of shoppers, and the Tannoy periodically broadcasts its workaday requests, summoning the supervisor to till number five and so on. Unexpectedly this shifts to Shakespeare's 23rd sonnet, and we hear: "As an imperfect actor on the stage/Who with his fear is put besides his part . . ." followed by the announcement that the Supermarket Shakespeare actors will be assembling in the fresh veg section.

So we troop to this -- ahem -- sceptred aisle, to find what appear to be several members of staff and some plain-clothes types, each holding five items or less aloft and inviting us to follow their journey round the store.

This is Teatro Vivo in action. Parks, police stations, HMV and now Sainsbury's have all played host to their particular brand of up close and personal theatre. Well, up close, at least, as proximity proves to be no guarantee of intimacy: our first character, Colin the soap-star-turned-shelf-stacker, had a rather unengrossing narrative, enlivened only by a customer asking him if he knew where the lardons were.

In fact, the show doesn't exactly do what it says on the tin, and the connection with Shakespeare is minimal -- no unkindest cut of all in the deli section, then. This is Shakespeare-lite, in which Sonnet 23 is merely the starting point to six stories, each loosely dealing with the disconnect between what we feel and our ability to express it.

The experience is repeated three times, so shoppers can track a different performer each time, or even switch allegiance as they interact during a tour. The spectacle is free, and at any one time there can be just one shopper following a performer, or a large group, and people peel off, join in or shout comments along the way. The characters talk to us and ask for advice.

Things hot up on our second outing, when we follow Mari the cheerleader (Laura Hooper). We are welcomed as fellow "Sparkles" with high-fives and West Coast whoops and then given a tour round the healthy eating area and her neuroses.

Delightful muddle

And here is where it gets interesting: when Mari breaks down in meat, fish and poultry, she is so physically close that we are co-opted into the drama and feel compelled to act. (At another show a little boy gave one of the actors a consoling hug.) It's this delightful muddle of the rules of theatrical engagement that makes this promenade so engaging.

The spirit of revelry clearly affects the bona fide Sainsbury's employees, two of whom join our group, puckishly wearing the same name on their badges. Abdul and Abdul are then deftly looped into the show.

The repetition of events allows us the pleasure and privilege of rewinding the scene and playing it again from another perspective. Gary the bolshy Brummie (Stavros Dimitrinki), who had given our own dear cheerleader such a hard time in baby products, proves to have his own sad reasons for kicking off, and we think of him entirely differently second time around.

There is an intriguing hierarchy of knowledge among spectators, from those who know nothing of the set-up, and merely see an unremarkable conversation, to those who have shadowed several performers. Moreover, we can never know the play in its entirety, as there's no opportunity to follow all six actors.

This is gentle guerrilla drama that takes place in and takes on a theatre of consumption, and briefly gets us out of our acquisitive trance and into acknowledging each other. It's an act of generosity, and a quiet reminder that the milk of human kindness does not reside in the dairy section.

Tags:Theatre

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