Pictured, above,         CeCe (Cassandra Croucher,    “  Retail Therapy  ”   ): “You see, there’s a reason why people in retail smile so much. It’s not because we’re happy, it’s not because we like you. It’s because secretly, we’re dying inside and we don’t want you to know it.”    Picture credit:  Geoff Lawrence ,  Creative Futures Photography

Pictured, above, CeCe (Cassandra Croucher, Retail Therapy): “You see, there’s a reason why people in retail smile so much. It’s not because we’re happy, it’s not because we like you. It’s because secretly, we’re dying inside and we don’t want you to know it.” Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography

For only five performances (24-27 November, 2016), the Brisbane Powerhouse Graffiti Room (aka the Wonderland Festival ‘Leopard Lodge’) is transformed into the changing room of a major clothing store. Once through the curtain, hangers full of garments in hand, you can learn more about the experience from the other side of the counter. If you are really, really quick, you may just snare a bargain. Get in there now for an enjoyable 50 minutes of music, song and witty observation.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘retail therapy’ as the act of buying special things for yourself in order to feel better when you are unhappy.” Cassandra Croucher’s Retail Therapy takes us into the changing room—and mind—ofCeCe, store manager extraordinaire. In doing so, Croucher redefines the well-worn ‘retail therapy’ phrase. Here we discover the destructive impact of customers on retail staff. Given a chance to look behind the thin veneer of the “retail face,” we learn just what the store experience can do to previously happy, optimistic souls. Yes, I am talking about retail employees here. Before we, the customers, entered the shop staff were once real people, with their own hopes and dreams.

Retail manager CeCe’s advice is to “try not to end up in retail.” In this one-act, one-woman show, we learn that everything we thought was true of the shop assistant is true. Favourite time of day? Before opening (“no customers”). Favourite drink? “Alcohol.” CeCe’s trade secrets include everything from selecting the best new items for herself, through to ‘making friends’ in order to upsell, and hiding from the weirder regulars. Clearly, over time, the customers have driven her to it. The descriptions of customer stereotypes amuse (and occasionally horrify) as we learn a few home truths about how retail staff are put upon during their daily life: from the creepy customers who ‘check in’ with their captive audience, through to the often vile activity of the “fitting room terrorists.” Some people clearly find difficulty distinguishing between changing rooms and public toilets.  

The songs are entertaining and the music easily recognisable: 90s popular songs (think Gloria Estefan and Madonna) interspersed with tunes from shows such as Cabaret, Chicago, and Les Miserables.  But the words are new versions of everything from Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ through to my personal favourite of the evening, a reworked LesMis ‘Master of the House.’ I loved the singing and the rewording of the songs. But, I’d also liked to have had more time hearing the conversational thoughts of the brave, funny, and observant CeCe.

Croucher is a talented performer—not only author and co-producer of this one-woman show, but also a character actress with a great singing voice. The reality of the retail world is not always pretty, but in these expert hands, we experience the highs and lows of the retail experience. Croucher is witty and downright funny in her observations of life on the shop floor. She is also able to bring us snapshots of the full gamut of retail emotion—from real anger and vitriolic bile, through to pathos.

This store manager presents a feisty persona. But, behind that name-badge and loud hailer, is a sadness, when CeCe confesses, “this place is turning me into someone I don’t want to be.” Recognising that her retail face, name badge and (CeCe’s own special addition) the loud hailer have protected her from the reality of retail work, we realise she is moving toward facing up to being honest with her family about her real life.

Accompanied by the talented David Mibus (Music Director), and with the support of Danielle Carney (Director), Retail Therapy is a perfect show for a festival program. If I have a criticism, it’s that the ending leaves us wanting more—the first 50 minutes of what could be a longer show. I felt I’d seen the first act of what would be a great two-act show. Perhaps the next iteration of Retail Therapy might take us to a slightly larger space, with dedicated sound and lighting support. A chance to hear more about the life of CeCe. Then again, having wanted to study psychology, her close observation of the retail world leads us to think CeCe has just taken her skills into direct field observation. After all, there’s enough material in there for a longer play—or a thesis?

Clearly Brisbane audiences want to see more of Retail Therapy, as the Anywhere Festival show sold out quickly, and the Powerhouse Wonderland Festival shows are almost completely sold out. Tickets are available via the Powerhouse. But be warned, you may have to start lobbying for CeCe to get that pricing gun out again. As I write, even with an extra show added to the program, there are only 2 tickets left across the remaining 4 shows (yes, literally only 2 tickets available, at $30 each, including booking fee of $3).  Get shopping now!  Oh, and practice those folding skills before you go“neat folds.”

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the 24 November, 2016 performance.