World Factory

Theatre, Off-West End
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Heaps of audience participation in this piece about the ethics of the fashion industry.

You might have played this game at school: you’re split across separate tables and given a country to run, or a business – or, in this case, a factory. You have to make tough decisions with your budget, with your wages, balancing employee satisfaction against the cold bottom line. You cut corners, you cut holiday allowance, you break the odd law and hope nobody notices. The game is to stay competitive or die; stand up for what you believe is right or do anything you can to scratch a profit.

‘World Factory’ applies this model to the Chinese garment industry. In groups of six, we choose a name for our factory, strike deals with the fast fashion industry, hire and fire, and squeeze our employees until they squeal or seek employment elsewhere. Or perhaps we choose the high road and pray that our organic cotton T-shirts and reputation for good working conditions pays off on the high street.

It’s a stunningly presented experience. From the ‘dealers’ who manage our experience like implacable croupiers, slipping us bribes under the table or handing us the latest piece of bad news, to the huge screens broadcasting constant rolling footage of automated looms and industrial statistics, the attention to detail in Zoë Svendsen’s production is superb. There’s a real tactility to the game, as we examine the clothes we have made for faults and flick through folders of employees to slice into the latest round of redundancies.

The problem is that the game is so much fun, and so engrossing on its own terms, that the message begins to vanish beneath the glee. Facts and figures fly by, but they begin to blur into incoherence. There are great performances from Heather Lai and Lucy Ellinson in particular, flitting from speechifying world leaders to exhausted factory workers, but there’s not enough context to really hook you in. The brilliantly intricate structure of the game pulls against the noble intentions of the narrative. 



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