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Review: Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area

A fun and inventive musical filled with style.

Have you ever visited Sainsbury’s? Or embarked on a rogue Tesco trip when you felt a little spicy? Have you ever thought that despite the legions of self checkout machines and £4 wine something was just… missing? “Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area” goes beyond filling this void in your life; it overflows it with pure ecstasy wrapped in a musical ensemble and delivered by a charming and exceptional cast.

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Vicki (Jamie Williams) and Nicki (Joe Pieri) prepare for a hardcore grocery scanning session. Photo credit: Isobel Griffiths

The story follows the quirky and dysfunctional employees of a failing supermarket through an average days work battling infestations of rodents, alcoholism, and a villainous plot to destroy the supermarket to make room for a pet store, as well as a handful of twisty side stories following the wacky nature of each employee, which does absolutely nothing but only enhance the chaotic hilariousness of this production. I wish I could reveal more of the story, but I adamantly believe that its twisty nature has so much comedic value that if you want more I’m afraid you’ll just have to get a ticket and watch it.

The hour-long original musical comedy written by Laurence T-Stannard and Cambridge Footlights Amaya Holman and Jamie Bisping is filled with wonderfully inventive comedy in every form you can imagine. They sing, you laugh, they dance, you laugh, they crawl across the stage after cat food? You laugh. With a majority of the play being sung (well, it is a musical) you may fear a quick fall into a pantomime-esque vibe with bad gags, and an even worse story. However, the writing avoids every musical pitfall I could imagine and fills its lines with relevant and inventive comedy, whilst also not being afraid to sprinkle some taboo jokes into the mix, a practice I can only wish spreads across into more writing.

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The wierd and wonderful cat food eating Karen (Ella Burns) is serenaded by the employees. Photo Credit: Isobel Griffiths

The cast. Oh, how enjoyable it is to sit and be taken on a journey, and to have been led by such a multi-talented set of actors and actresses. Splendid. Not only could they embody the physical comedy of each of the characters with their lively dancing and movement on stage, but each and every member of the cast could simultaneously bring a vocal talent perfectly suited to the witty lyrics that will have you crying with laughter on the third beat of the song. A particular set of highlights of the night was when each of the characters had a solo performance: my absolute favourite was the dramatic, fourth-wall breaking musical number by Luci Furr (Amaya Holman), which saw her spend a significant portion of time pulling laughs from the audience with a mixture of physical and lyrical comedy. No discussion of this performance would be complete without the pairing of Nicki (Joe Pieri) and Vicki (Jamie Williams). From the very first scene, the bond between the two performers was on display, and a scene almost felt incomplete without a quick gag from the pair. I shouldn't forget the shy fishmonger (Sophie Foote) and temporary floor manager (Annabelle Haworth) whose sideline brought some genuine emotional depth to the stage, a surprising and endearing feat. Karen (Ella Burns) is a character I can’t describe in any way besides unexpectedly funny at every moment.

If I were to have one criticism, it would be that there was some clumsiness within the not overly-complicated dancing, but did this subtract from the action? No! Every part of the performance blended so well that a few off-beat steps didn’t register until I sat down and tried to criticise it, and even then, the occasional misstep felt perfectly in line with the characters' natures, to the point where I could be convinced those few mistakes were a purposeful artistic decision.

Behind every line spoken or sung, underneath every dancing step, there was the music. A vibrant and lively band shared the stage and in every way felt like a 7th cast member who without their presence would have turned a ferocious punchline into a verbal flick. My particular compliments go to the drummer (Finlay Stafford), whose excellent sense of rhythm pushed you through the scenes, setting the comedic pace. To play such a dynamic range of music for the entire show, and at the same time blend it seamlessly with the actions of the cast, took exceptional skill from each musician and further shows the absolute dedication this production required and delivered upon.

Before precisely 23:04 on the night of the performance I thoroughly disliked musicals. I thought they lacked creativity, talent and fundamentally an ability to make me laugh. By 23:05 and a mere 20 seconds into the first song I knew I had made a grave mistake – and I will forever be grateful for this excellent production for opening my eyes.


(Cover photo credit: Chloe Marschner)