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Try Harder at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham

This happens to be a timely production: employment has hit the headlines again at the time of writing, this time because of the concept of ‘quiet quitting’, in which people have ceased to go above and beyond what is required of them according to their job descriptions. For instance, they work their shift patterns, starting and leaving on time, and do not do any unpaid overtime. The premise behind the idea, which some have deemed ‘work to rule’ by another name, is that working harder doesn’t result in the kind of rewards that make the extra work worthwhile, if any rewards materialise at all. We only get one life, so it should be used wisely, and very few people wish on their deathbed that they spent more time in the office, whatever form ‘the office’ may take, dependent on what one’s job is.

Try Harder at the Omnibus Theatre
Try Harder at the Omnibus Theatre

The new recruits in this play, Sam (Toby Moran Mylett), Grace (Helen Squires) and Lucy (Cléo Roggenhofer), don’t have the option of ‘quiet quitting’: for some reason, they have no job descriptions in the first place. All they know is that whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing it right in the eyes of management, represented by Joe (Darrel Draper).

Although the details in this particular work environment are exaggerated for comic effect – successfully, I hasten to add – there is an aura of familiarity to the evening’s proceedings. It’s not, sadly, uncommon for someone to be asked to do something in an unreasonable timeframe, or for petty and insignificant things to be made into big deals. There is an absurdist element to the show: as there are neither disciplinary hearings nor right to appeal given, claims to an employment tribunal could be made. But that’s rather beside the point, which is, in part, to demonstrate, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner, workplace exploitation.

There are forays into the new starters’ personal lives, too: Sam, for instance, is one of those pleasant but timid types who found it difficult in early adulthood to strike up conversations with other people. It’s not entirely clear what Grace’s life prior to the trio’s first day at work was – without giving too much away, her own version of events read like an embellished CV. And then there’s Lucy, whose story is indicative of the challenges people in her age bracket face. True, nobody made her go to university, but the production, with its trademark aplomb, makes the case that there’s a lot of pressure placed on teenagers to pursue higher education.

With hindsight, perhaps she could have gone down the road of full-time work and part-time study rather than the other way around, which may have alleviated her stress levels to an extent, but the salient points in her story remain pretty much the same either way: all work (and study) and no play makes Lucy a dull lady.

There are companies very much like the one in this play: I know of at least one in my local area that at the height of the pandemic, when so many people were looking for work (however casually, given the lockdowns in place at the time), couldn’t fill positions. It was nothing to do with the virus, or That Referendum (you know the one), and everything to do with uncompetitive salaries and unrealistic expectations – they couldn’t find the ‘right’ candidate, because the ‘right’ candidate didn’t exist. I make this point because although the show is billed as a ‘surreal comedy-drama’, it’s ultimately, to me, only surreal at surface level. I may be digging too deep into a show that is, in the end, designed to entertain. But this facetious and revelatory production hits the mark in exposing some uncomfortable truths. It was over all too quickly: a postscript telling the audience what happened to the characters afterwards, especially as their backstories are provided, would have been ideal.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Try Harder tells the story of three young adults, desperate for money, who attend training for a job they know absolutely nothing about. To make matters worse they have the boss from hell, impossible to satisfy, no matter how hard they try to carry out their work.

Try Harder is a surreal, fast-paced comedy-drama about the pressures faced by young people in an increasingly challenging society, which asks the question: When is your good, good enough?

9-20 AUG 2022

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