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.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.