“Any show that has a punchline of “F*** you, focaccia!” will make any audience sit up and take notice”
A Fit-Bit with attitude and Satanic vegan mince are among the unconventional side dishes in a very funny show that seeks to strip away the stereotypes surrounding eating disorders.
Avoiding the clichés too often heaped on any discussion about or presentation of anorexia sufferers, Francesca Forristal’s “Oddball” is a genuine attempt to face the facts – but also allows the audience to laugh comfortably at the all too real scenarios and thought processes of what she describes as the nutritionally-challenged as we get to understand it better.
Although it’s a semi-autobiographical piece the show only mirrors some of writer and performer Forristal’s story, but there is enough honest insight – and even comprehension of wider mental health issues – to make this a compelling and entertaining 60 minutes.
The show’s framing device is that Oddball (apparently so-named by her cheeky Fit-Bit Karen) is preparing for a first date with Emily. Everything seems set for success – after all, not only do they both have a passion for musical theatre, but they both like “Fun Home,” for goodness sake!) – but what might ruin things for a recovering anorexic is that the date is for dinner in a restaurant.
Through flashbacks, dream sequences, physical comedy and astute observation Forristal tells the story with incredible energy, regularly breaking the fourth wall to address audience members directly – an approach which works very well in the VAULT Festival’s Gift Horse venue, above the Horse and Stables pub.
Director Micha Mirto ensure things don’t get too introspective or downbeat, allowing Forristal to take centre stage in the one-woman show, but giving supervisory nudges to ensure none of the narrative or the actions around it linger too long.
There are laugh out loud moments, such as reflecting on past dates and explaining some of the regime at the eating disorder clinic (“Six anorexics walk into a sandwich bar…”) but these are always balanced with showing the discomfort and trauma of a sufferer when faced with a menu or the awkwardness of social situations.
While there is little in the way of scenery or props there is great sound design (Jordan Clarke) to accompany moments of mime. Clarke and Forristal have also between them written some splendid original music, much of it sending up established musical styles (as well as showing off Forristal’s rather fine singing voice). A favourite number must be The Genuinely Mentally Unwell Block Tango, which cries out for Bob Fosse jazz hands.
“She’s funny and she recovered from anorexia – what a trouper!” shouts Forristal towards the stage from the audience seats at one point and that pretty much sums up a show which bravely tackles an often taboo topic with courage and confidence. It never once pokes fun but constantly prods understanding, not ever falling into a comfortable trap of suggesting that recovery comes with a snap of the fingers or a wave of Magic Stars.
Any show that has a punchline of “F*** you, focaccia!” will make any audience sit up and take notice. When that show also handles a difficult subject with such wit and style and sends its audience out with thoughts well and truly provoked it deserves all the attention it can muster.
“There’s a pleasing Black Mirror vibe to Richard Fitchett’s sharply written piece”
Artificial intelligence has been creepy since HAL 9000 threateningly announced, “I am afraid I can’t do that, Dave” in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. So anyone who continues to be spooked by Siri or Alexa telling you your toast is ready would be best to avoid Room Service, an intelligent and amusing new play about AI at the Bread and Roses Theatre.
The play explores the “day after tomorrow” sci-fi idea of a man arriving at a hotel and finding virtual room service in the shape of an advanced robot called Zahra. But this artificial intelligence isn’t the sort who’ll prevent you going outside to repair your spaceship, as in Kubrick’s epic: she is far more likely to order food and drink, give simple practical advice and check your faeces to ensure you haven’t got colon cancer.
There’s a pleasing Black Mirror vibe to Richard Fitchett’s sharply written piece, which first saw the light of day when an excerpt was performed at the theatre last year and which was also chosen to help launch its second venue near Kings Cross. Now developed into a complete work it’s a clever study of humanity’s relationship with technology – in this case a virtual helper who anticipates what you want before you know it yourself.
Andrew Mullan plays Max, the unsuspecting businessman who leaves his wife and young son at home, checks into a hotel room for work purposes and checks out an attractive colleague, leading to a one-night stand. He doesn’t reckon on the reaction of Zahra, who matter of factly leads him on a guilt trip.
Mullan is every inch the caring husband and father who sees nothing wrong in having a quick fling. He skilfully tunes in to our slight phobia of all-knowing, all-seeing new technology yet allows us to see the man and machine interconnection as he begins to anthropomorphise the hardware/software package with whom he shares the room, a simple set containing bed, table and chairs yet strongly resembling just about every hotel room businessfolk are likely to inhabit.
It’s a strong performance that curbs what could all too easily be manic, instead bringing out a genuine fascination of what makes free will and what counts as pre-determination.
Emma Stannard is extraordinary as Zahra, in a pitch perfect and occasionally unnerving portrayal of the carefully programmed machine, unconcerned about tracking individuals through any legally accessible data yet self aware enough to wonder if her actions are a result of random algorithms coming together or a burgeoning sense of empathy.
It’s an enthralling performance, every bit as believable and appealing as, for example, Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, of whom Zahra must surely be a forebear. Stannard (who also co-produces the play with Fitchett) always convinces with a clipped vocal style and expressionless face, never cracking once as she comes to the realisation that she may be more than just wires and electronic pulses.
Micha Mirto directs with a sense of urgency: not a second is wasted in determining the characters (even those only referred to who we do not meet) and the obvious sci-fi angles are pulled back to give something more contemporary, personable and debatable.
Praise must go to the Bread and Roses Theatre for having such confidence in this stimulating and weighty drama which the writer has been able to develop into something full-bodied and robust, which digs deep into the ideas and characters to give an intriguing issue fresh perspective.