Thursday, 9 February 2017

REVIEW: Focus Group at Ovalhouse

Inspired by Mister Squishy – a short story by David Foster Wallace – Focus Group (or How to Stare Down and Transfigure Loneliness) is an insight on the melancholic and work-centred life of Terry (Terry O'Donovan). Employee of an advertising agency, he's a focus group moderator in charge of researching on the brand image of Mr Kipling individually wrapped cakes. 

When the auditorium doors open, we are invited by Terry and his colleagues Clare (Clare Dunn) and Stu (Stuart Barter) to choose a side of the traverse stage and take a seat. Right in the middle is a yellow table on a large yellow carpet and, by the edges, a microwave on top of a filing cabinet, an armchair and a couple of foldable chairs. Jackie Shemesh's stage is based on primary colours and the same guidelines generally apply to the costumes. The elementary props are counterbalanced by an elaborate sound and lighting design which moulds the scenes producing a cinematographic time-lapse effect. This is a play that shows rather than tell, putting the right emphasis on simple but meaningful gestures. 

The two sides of the stage are addressed alternately with partially different contents and, eventually, we all become part of Terry's focus group. Within an industry that uses the word 'immersive' to attract attention and justify the inflated ticket prices, Focus Group avoids the tag but not its essence. As an audience member I was invited to answer a series of questions and I could effortlessly relate to the purpose of the undergoing study without ever feeling
forced to do so. The format is absolute genius and highlights the recognisable unease and diffused unhappiness that we often feel when leaving and working in a big city like London. Ultimately, it is an unpretentious yet elaborate piece of theatre and, as such, tackles with poignant lucidity the unavoidable contamination and toxic lack of balance between career and private life. 

The cast carry out a striking depiction of three young professionals who struggle to find a role outside work. Also being the minds behind the show, their commitment to the plot results in a vivid and approachable delivery that keeps momentum despite relying heavily on timing and accurate spatial positioning. 

Simplicity is a form of beauty and I left the Ovalhouse so impressed by the innovative design of this post-modern performance that I'm keen to see it again and I'll definitely be looking forward to more projects from the brilliant TOOT company. 

Review by Marianna Meloni 

Rating: ★★★★★

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