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Assessment Centre by Craig Henry at the Etcetera Theatre

It’s been fifteen years since I attended an ‘assessment centre’ myself – an experience I’ve managed to avoid replicating. There were a series of tasks, one of which was about demonstrating computer skills. There was a verbal reasoning test, and a scenario in which the candidates who had applied for a job (of which I was one of several) had to come up with possible solutions for an actual problem the hiring organisation was facing. Looking back, I think they were justifying the effort and expense of running the assessment centre by getting confidential advice for free. But you need not have gone through a similar process in order to follow this play – for one thing, there are sparse details about the actual job Clay (Jasper Talbot) and Freyja (Pippa Moss) have gone for.

Assessment Centre. Credit Oli Harman.
Assessment Centre. Credit Oli Harman.

There’s a focus instead on the various activities to be completed, which at surface level are somewhat bizarre. An icebreaker session involves the pair getting to know each other before they solve riddles. This in turn is followed by the completion of a challenge that must be done together, and some further questions are asked of one another, from a pre-set list. The list is morally dubious, with questions that are so personal that one is naturally inclined to wonder what the chosen topics have to do with being good at one’s job.

More than the usual amount of suspension of disbelief is required, therefore, to invest in this narrative – perhaps none of the actual tasks set before Clay and Freyja would form part of an actual assessment centre. A touch of the absurd, however, does make for good theatre, and as both candidates are still keen to be considered for the job they have applied for (whatever that is), they find themselves willing to do things and talk about subject matters that are well and truly out of their respective comfort zones.

The duo’s personalities are a little too tidily opposed – the very friendly and gregarious Clay meets the sober-minded and borderline hostile Freyja. But the show avoids what might be expected behaviours. While the atmosphere is sometimes tense, there are no prolonged shouting matches, let alone a walkout by one or the other. The levels of cooperation and willingness to see things from the other’s perspective is somewhat contrary to the supposed competitive nature of an assessment centre, though one-upmanship periodically rears its head.

The contradictions and imponderables presented in the play are intriguing: is it possible, for instance, to claim not to be motivated by money when it comes to career aspirations but still apply for jobs at least partly because they offer higher remuneration? At a still more personal level, both characters, despite having most of their lives still ahead of them, have suffered bereavement, and the sharing of their coping strategies take a question-and-answer session far beyond the typical parameters of a recruitment and selection process.

But the knowledge that this isn’t a feasible real-life scenario somehow makes the audience more invested in the story, because while the situation itself is nothing short of preposterous, the dialogue is highly relevant to contemporary society. Played in real-time (I think), neither actor leaves the stage for the duration of the performance. Both actors inhabit their characters very convincingly, and perhaps there is something to be said for assessment centres teasing out things about job candidates that a stiffly structured panel interview wouldn’t be able to do. And while I still wouldn’t want to participate in another one if I can at all help it, that doesn’t stop this show from being a multilayered play in which the ridiculous and the sublime collide, with results as amusing as they are poignant.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Assessment Centre is a brand-new play by Craig Henry. The show sees two people arriving at an assessment centre for a new job. Through a series of tasks both are pushed to their limits to find out how far would they go to beat the
competition and land a new job?

The play takes an ordinary scenario and uses this to challenge something much bigger, something that every audience member will relate to at some point in their lives.

Assessment Centre
Clay – Jasper Talbot
Freyja – Pippa Moss
Writer/Director: Craig Henry
Photographer: Oli Harman

Etcetera Theatre (Camden Fringe 2023)
Dates: 8th August @7pm, 12th August @3pm and 13th August @3pm
Genre: New Writing (Comedy/Drama)
Running Times: 60 Mins

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