Executive Stress/Corporate Retreat

Wed 8th – Sun 26th August 2012

reviews

Pia Dhaliwal

at 00:56 on 14th Aug 2012

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The fifty minutes I spent in Australian theatre collective Applespiel’s 'Executive Stress/Corporate Retreat' is quite possibly the most unusual fifty minutes I’ve ever spent at the Fringe. No, seriously. Anyone who turns up expecting some sort of story about stressed executives corporately retreating is going to be proven very, very wrong.

Before even entering the theatre, several eventual members of the audience are picked out from the pre-show queue and invited to sign up for a mysterious elite programme. The rest of the prospective audience is then ushered into a circle and led in a somewhat cringeworthy exercise intended to dispel ‘bad energy’ prior to the ‘seminar’ (honestly a more accurate description than ‘show’). So, annoyingly enthusiastic instructors, hokey games and self-conscious participation – this is already beginning to feel like a real corporate retreat.

Upon actually entering the space, the atmosphere set up pre-show is further added to with a series of games and question-and-answer sessions not unlike those found in real versions of such events – although all focused mainly on the front-row elite programme participants. These range from the standard (interview questions; a team-building game involving rebuilding a rocket) to the embarrassing (an exercise involving the participants envisioning themselves as animals reflecting their best and worst selves respectively) to the downright creepy (a bizarre tale about fox-hunting and a story involving the rape and murder of a child). The elite programmers are then awarded points based on participation, with their scores consistently updated for all to see. This eventually culminates in a winner (i.e. the person with the most points) being selected from the programme.

The concept here is certainly unique, although occasionally bizarre. The enthusiasm of the cast in mimicking actual overzealous facilitators – Simon Binns, Nathan Harrison and Troy Reid are particularly memorable as smarmy exercise leaders – nicely offsets what I imagine is the frequent reluctance of participating audience members to let themselves go too much. The cast’s energy is definitely one of the show’s high points – although it makes initially entering the theatre a somewhat overwhelming affair, with power-suited executives running in formation back and forth across the stage as empowerment messages are displayed on a large screen behind them. This results in the initial individual greetings getting a little lost, what with the rest of the cast running around rather distractingly in the background. The aforementioned darker bits of the seminar were a little jarring to witness, although they certainly served to highlight the very real tendencies of any sort of team-building affair to venture into utter ridiculousness. Although as one of the non-elite participants, it must be said that my personal experience was very different from that of the more involved members of the audience, and while I had no problem watching from the sidelines, doing so may not be for everyone.

On the whole, while I’d hesitate to recommend 'Executive Stress/Corporate Retreat' to anyone looking to quietly while away an hour, anyone looking for something a little different from his or her Fringe experience should definitely check this out. It’s distinctive, memorable, and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek – and definitely more fun than the real thing. Not least because of the accents.

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Anwen Jones

at 09:09 on 14th Aug 2012

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Before seeing this play, I used to puzzle over my father’s complete unwillingness to attend various business breaks away with colleagues. To me they seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get out of the house, stay in a beautiful hotel, eat exquisite cuisine and what’s more, all expenses were paid – a free-pass holiday with a minimum amount of work. How wrong I was. I am now enlightened to the rather manic, repetitive, exceedingly bizarre exclamations of so-called ‘team leaders’ and the ridiculously embarrassing and condescending tasks that innocent employees are forced to undertake.

Appelspiel cleverly alter the somewhat over-used school phrase ‘achieving to the best of your ability’ to the brutal motto of ‘stamping on all others - toes, fingers, everything - to reach the top no matter what.’ What’s more, these humiliating activities and mantras are not merely viewed by ticket holders: cue some hilarious audience participation! The unfortunate souls selected beforehand to participate as ‘Elite Members’ (a.k.a the guinea-pigs of the seven ‘team leaders’ that make up Appelspiel) are put through their paces with various activities including physical portrayals of their worst and best selves in the form of either worms, mice or cockroaches and wolves, eagles or sharks (sound effects were added too) whilst the remaining spectators watch in glee, safe in their non-participating seats, oddly enjoying the humiliation of the innocent individuals before them.

Admittedly, there were times when the bizarre activities within the piece – a pressurised tie-knotting competition for example - caused confusion to an obvious plot line and it was difficult, with most attention diverted onto the mockery of the ‘Elite Members Programme’, to gain a rounded perspective on characterisation. If one was looking for striking characters and hard-hitting action, this is most definitely not the play to see. The key to this production lies in the originality of idea and the professional handling of such a concept. All the cast were strong actors but a particular mention should go out to Emma McManus for her mumbling, slightly disturbed, under-dog character and Troy Reid for managing to shout and glare with such anger at an obviously petrified audience member whilst maintaining a straight face.

In short, the production provided a different flavour of theatre and praise must be given for the daring concept of making a business/work-based theme seem bizarre, ridiculous and funny. It’s an intriguing piece of theatre executed with tireless enthusiasm and energy, worth watching if you fancy a more interactive theatre experience and a good laugh at preposterous advice for career success.

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