Expensive Shit @ Traverse Theatre

Review by Kate Pasola | 08 Aug 2016

“I want what you have,” a nightclub toilet attendant and ex-dancer laments through an empty mirror frame into the eyes of a captive audience. “Power. To sit and watch and judge.”

Those who followed the scandal of the exploitative two-way mirrors found installed in Glasgow’s Shimmy nightclub know already who this character, played sublimely by Sabina Cameron, is ostensibly addressing; the men on the other side of the mirrors who’ve paid to ogle oblivious women while they wash their hands, reapply their makeup and adjust their breasts. Audience members unaware of this news story – part of the inspiration for Expensive Shit – might assume they’re being addressed like the privileged spectators that they are, perhaps in some sort of Brechtian break from the action.

In reality, it’s conceivable that playwright and director Adura Onashile was aiming for both; duality runs in the blood of this work of intersectional art, after all.

Expensive Shit tells the tale of parallel moral dilemmas in both Shimmy Club, Glasgow and Shrine Club, Lagos. In the latter, we’re transported back in time to when our protagonist and her peers are furiously trying to make it into the band of Afrobeat legend and campaigner Fela Kuti.

The show is studded with dynamic, potent choreography to Kuti’s music, a particular highlight being their routine to Zombie, a song he wrote in criticism of what he regarded to be a complacent, morally docile Nigerian military. The ensemble realise Lucy Wild’s choreography with varying commitment; Diana Yekinni brings it to undulating, riveting fruition while Jamie Marie Leary seems a little more distant.

The challenge of accents is also met with fluctuating ease, but is convincing overall. In flashbacks to the Shrine club, the characters speak in Nigerian pidgin and Creole before transitioning into Cockney and Scottish accents in their Glasgow scenes. Teri Ann Bobb Baxter does so seamlessly, and her portrayal of a meek British nightclubber is tenderly contrasted with her role in the Shrine club as a vivacious, self-assured dancer.

The performance takes place in the round, making for a claustrophobic atmosphere which thoroughly complements both the set and the action. The set is a simple yet superb concept; mirror frames through which the audience peer at the action, three toilet cubicles and a piece of corrugated metal onto which moody lights and the word 'SHRINE' are intermittently projected. Kuti’s music is blended expertly with Calvin Harris bangers – the latter rendered bleak in comparison – as we slalom from Lagos to Glasgow and see our empowered, dancing protagonist become a conflicted shell of regret.

It’s important to note that this is a show which has recontextualised a story from Glasgow and drafted it into a narrative about seven different characters of colour; something so rarely done in a landscape saturated with whiteness. Not only does Expensive Shit force us confront ideas of female privacy, sexual equality and gender politics, we learn just how individual sprints for liberty, autonomy and power can have devastating consequences for those left behind. The liberty to judge comes at a price for some. The liberty to retaliate comes at a price for others.

Expensive Shit is a tremendously entertaining show, but its potency lies in how successfully it reminds us, the silent observers, the distance from injustice that we take for granted over and over and over again.

Expensive Shit, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-28 Aug (not Mon), times vary, £8.50-18.50