No cut-price laughs in this gentle comedy gem

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Have you ever walked into a deathly-quiet shop and been unnerved by the vaguely desperate expressions on the assistants’ faces, hoping against hope for a sale? Meet the staffers at Chapman’s, a general store located on a windswept fishing island that’s not only godforsaken, but human-forsaken too.

Even the furnishings and products in this glum little shop are bleached dove-grey; the motley trio of employees, who are blown into the premises one by one as they arrive for work, contribute the only spots of colour. They are misfits, drones even, yet they are peculiarly endearing and quirky in their ordinariness.

There’s timid Gillian the cashier, Jackie the ruddy-faced fishing tour guide and Donald the slightly dishevelled sales assistant, who glows with misplaced pride when he’s promoted to supervisor – even though there’s no activity
as such to supervise.

Their boss is Jonathan, who initially comes across as a sort of socially inept Ricky Gervais as David Brent in The Office-by-the-sea, with a dash of Mr. Bean clumsiness thrown in. Awkwardly, he keeps cracking corny jokes and announcing impromptu “stock inventories” and “cash flow analyses” in an almost pathetic attempt to motivate his staff and relieve the tedium. But still no customers arrive.

Director Helen Iskander and the company have devised a charming story of small-town people and workplace boredom, and have imbued it with a massive heart, so much so that after an hour, you’re totally rooting for these simple souls who yearn only to be useful and needed.

With subtle but effective use of physical comedy, sound effects – the tapping of a cash register, the clatter on a metal shelf, the whirr of a fishing reel – and the silent spaces between words, the players create a very real, credible space.

There is a deliciously dark edge to the piece as survival instinct kicks in: the workers jolted out of their listlessness and apathy when the bubble of their micro-verse – dull and mundane though it may be – comes under threat from the world. Their comfort zone may have become a discomfort zone, but at least it’s theirs. And no one is going to take it away from them, come hell or gale-force winds.

Considering the current global recession, the piece could be set anywhere, at any time, in a once-thriving coastal hamlet that either enjoys only seasonal patronage or whose fortunes have fallen victim to a more general tourism slump.

But it’s in the minutiae of these appealingly humdrum characters, their narrow little movements and their little lives, wherein lies the true revelatory beauty of Discounted. This is no cut-price comedy – on the contrary, it’s excellent value for money!

-Christina Kennedy-

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