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Focus Group review at Ovalhouse, London – ‘surreal and experimental’

Terry O'Donovan in Focus Group. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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What colour is “brave and loyal”? What flavour conveys “confident and conscientious”? In Focus Group*, one half of the audience is asked these questions for the benefit of an unseen client – a prominent UK brand that specialises in lemon slices and fondant fancies – the other half is told about Terry, the focus group facilitator whose sense of personal identity is slipping away.

Toot’s third show is inspired by the David Foster Wallace short story Mister Squishy and uses brand research to investigate identity in a highly networked consumer world.

The three performer-creators’ corporate speech and dress is peppered with off-the-shelf charisma. And while we expect Terry (Terry O’Donovan) to be near robotic in his upbeat charm in his role as facilitator, we soon see that he and the other facilitators (played by Stuart Barter and Clare Dunn) never quite let their guard down. Endless ping-pong rallies and idle chat occupy the facilitators’ down-time, and each question is a volley, a probe batted away.

The surreal one-act arc of Focus Group* sees Terry consumed with self-curation while he simultaneously tries to define himself. He struggles to concentrate on what people say, because he’s focusing on what they are revealing about themselves.

In the show’s strongest moments, it recreates this effect in us with an innovative use of traverse, pitting the two sides of the audiences against one another, across Jackie Shemesh’s ‘blue-sky’ office design, so that we half-listen to one thing while also trying to determine if anything different is being revealed elsewhere.

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Staging experiments, surreal touches and cake enhance this brief slide into existential dread