Review: Failure Studies at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden

Monday 15th August 2022 at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewer: Jonathan Walfisz

Note: mild spoilers within…

George is having a bad week at work. In fact, George is having a very bad life at work. 

As the underappreciated intern at the ‘Failure Studies’ journal, he’s demeaned by his two editors as he’s forced to eat crumbs year-in-year-out that turn him into a human chicken. 

That sentence might not seem like the most natural set of images, but it’s accurate to the way Failure Studies matches unrepentantly surreal concepts with a barbarically cynical workplace comedy.

Set mostly in the Failure Studies journal office, Marc, an editor, played with viciously enjoyable eye-twitching energy by David Allen luxuriates in his examination of all things failure.

The journal accepts articles on the different machinations of human failure, which Marc and Babe, played empathetically by Francesca Maria Izzo, take great pleasure in reading to each other. 

Things come to a head when the journal itself faces failure, unable to pay its bills. While Babe is concerned, Marc’s cynical heart is aflame at his world philosophy coming full-circle. To keep the journal in business, Marc comes up with a nifty plan to court money from job applicants without ever hiring anyone. 

This is all to avoid firing their one employee, George.

Played with absolute gusto, the physical performance by Luke Richards alone makes Failure Studies worth a watch. As one of the key surreal elements of the play, George’s cowardice to face the real world of work and ambition is brought to life in physical form as he commits fully to acting as a chicken throughout. Richards is a joy to watch as he cavorts with his human and chicken identities. 

The play is at its best when it’s inspecting its setting of the meaningless office job. The walls feel like they’re closing in on the trio as, despite references to the outside world, the impossibility of ambition constrains their thinking. It really captures a hellish and apocalyptic world from just the slightest references to the job market. 

Failure Studies is much more than just an office drama. As the play goes on, it leans into its more surreal elements, as George’s true nature comes to the forefront.

These elements are all intriguingly experimental, but often don’t really work in bringing the piece together to create a cohesive piece of drama.

The initial voice-over section with George’s internal monologue forcing him into gym positions, for example. At first, it works as a comic bit, but then goes on too long and doesn’t feel connected enough to the themes to justify it as such a lengthy opener. 

The turn to an overly long section suggesting George and Babe are members of the pseudo-historical Sea Peoples suffers similar issues. The use of the Sea Peoples is an intriguing turn and if developed more I’d love to see what writer Marco Biasioli intended. But as it stands, it’s a sudden twist that suggests a grandiose undercurrent to the play I found wanting. 

However, the willingness to play with big ideas and be ambitious with concepts is exactly what fringe theatre is for. Despite not coming together fully, Failure Studies is a witty play that’s excellently acted throughout. Do I think that in its current state it needs its ideas fleshed out more? Yes. Do I want to see what this clearly creative theatre company does next? Absolutely.

Failure Studies plays the Etcetera Theatre until 17th August 2022 as part of the Camden Fringe. You can find more information and tickets here.

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