The corner shop was a part of the fabric of urban life in Britain long before it acquired the close identification with the Asian community which has characterised it in recent decades.
Now apparently in its final retreat in the face of the relentless advance of the supermarkets, it is being explored here in a promenade performance staged by Foursight Theatre in association with Black Country Touring.
Devised by the company and scripted by Rochi Rampal, it is based on an extensive research programme including many hours of recorded interviews which has been supported by English Heritage.
With West Brom’s controversial Public providing a comfortable assembly point (complete with free jazz on the night I was there), the performance is actually being staged a few yards away in a disused subterranean shop unit, where the audience is ushered through a series of spaces representing different shops and shopkeepers’ living rooms, sometimes being split in two to see scenes in different sequences.
At the outset we are introduced to a cast of aspiring shopkeepers – English, Indian, Iranian, Caribbean and Polish – who give an insight into their hopes and aspirations on setting out in the retail industry. In one striking scene, a living room is split down the middle between an English and Asian family as they both tot up their books on the busiest day of the year, Christmas Eve.
There’s an episode in a gaudy, eccentric sweetshop and the lady selling Caribbean vegetables tells the story of how another sweetshop proprietor came to a sticky end.
The best comes near the end when a scene showing the corner shop in full swing as a social meeting place as well as a local service is played in counterpoint with another going on in the back room.
Depending on which half of the audience you’re in, you see one scene first and then see how the second dovetails with it.
There is some great comedy here but also menace when a group of hoodies threaten the shopkeeper with a knife, and the show makes you aware of the vulnerability of the open-all-hours culture, as well as its economic grind.
Well performed by a professional cast of five plus additional performers recruited from the community, and with a strong musical accompaniment by Sheema Mukherjee and Derek Nisbet, The Corner Shop is a celebration of an aspect of urban life we take for granted at our peril.
* Running time: One hour, ten minutes (no interval). Performances today, Fri, Sat 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, tomorrow 1pm/7pm. Tickets cost £6 (£4 concessions). Box office: 0121 533 7162 (Mon-Sat 9am–6pm).