I have to confess that I didn’t realise that adult, net-less, small-table ping-pong could be so tedious. Whilst the pre-curtain- up decision to invite audience members to have a go at it was quirky and only mildly irritating the constant use of this mind-numbing theatrical device inspired the thought that maybe they’re moving on to water-boarding next. The constant repetitive sound of spherical celluloid on oak veneer not only dragged us through fifty shades of mechanical prolixity but had the dubious side-effect of drowning out the protagonists words as they were pinging their pongs.
Audibility is a massive factor in this show. The company opt for a traverse stage. That’s fine. Until that is, one character, Clare (Clare Dunn), talks to one side of the traverse, directly, confidentially, whilst a second character, Stu (Stu Barter), talks to the other side. I found myself desperately, and not very fruitfully, trying to hear what was being said on the other side thus missing most of what was being said on my side. I’m sure it’s very zeitgeisty and clever and theatrical and cleverly theatrical and all that but IT DOESN’T WORK.
The whole concept, written by the company, is like a devised A-level piece by a group of sixth formers who are given a subject (like, say, the inside of a ping-pong ball), the difference being that the sixth-formers would be more passionate and engaging and would have been taught, and would have learnt, how to use devices like traverse so they work.
Basically, lonely focus group moderator Terry (Terry O’Donovan) decides to kill the audience – sorry, his focus group – by injecting Mr Kipling with poison. Don’t worry, it’s exceedingly good poison and the ‘Moddy’ explains how and when the group will die. Nice. But naughty. I’m OK though. When copious free samples of Mr. K’s sugar-rush slices were passed around the audience/focus group I declined: I like to have my cake, not eat it. There’s a liberal distribution of audience plants and I noticed that one of these in the opposite front row also declined so I was in good company. Kill off your audience by all means – don’t think they’d be coming back anyway – but preserve planted Voices. One thing I did learn from this show, judging by the alacrity that with which everyone consumed Mr K’s icing-coated obesity-slabs, is that gluttony is not dead.
So to get to the mass-murder destination we are taken through lots of excruciating ping-pong, long silent bits, carpet-moving, furniture acrobatics, shadowy stuff, a myriad of seemingly irrelevant noises, microwave meal consumption, disco-bopping lions and performing angle-poise lamps. The latter displayed a depth of character and poise that the cast would do well to emulate. Throughout possibly the most epically humdrum journey ever known to man it was all I could do, in the spirit of the show’s special relationship with Audience Participation, not to keep blurting out “Are we there yet?”
I’ve done market research. I’ve been on focus groups. They’re not that interesting. They are self-confessed plotless, characterless, message-less, meaningless exercises the sole purpose of which is to serve the commercial
interests of the client. I’m not sure, though, that Toot Theatre’s Focus Group is serving the interests of its clients – the audience.
When we do finally get there Mad ‘Moddy’ Terry crawls under the carpet. Bit of a metaphor there, I thought: best, perhaps, if the whole thing was swept under the carpet. I did like the disco-bopping lions, though. But I have absolutely no idea what they were doing there.
Review by Peter Yates
Inspired by the short story Mister Squishy by cult US writer David Foster Wallace, Focus Group* is an absurd comedy with a dark heart, exploring the absurdity of modern life and consumer culture with humanity and humour. It is dark, unsettling and playful. The production celebrates the human drive to continue in what can feel like an increasingly remote reality.
Through TOOT’s distinctive style of interactive performance, the company provokes audiences to consider whether a real connection is possible at all.
Sit back, eat (individually wrapped, luxury) cake, and see a man gradually relinquish the delusion that he matters in the slightest…. And then go back to watching kitten videos on Facebook.
Created and performed by Stuart Barter, Clare Dunn and Terry O’Donovan.
Dramaturgy by Nina Steiger. Design by Jackie Shemesh. Produced by Faith Dodkins
Suitable for ages 14+