Shock Therapy is twisted, unpredictable, and at times repulsive. It is also charming, riotous, and very amusing, making for a great start to Oxford’s New Writing Festival. The set, which consisted of beach towels, tins of Fosters and a paddling pool, was enough to lure anyone into a false sense of security. As the audience took their seats, the cast fussed about the stage with an endearing energy that belied the dystopian content to come. What followed was a series of four stories, each centring around one character in turn, and each more disturbing than the last.
The costumes, handily labelling the characters as ‘A, B, C and D’, were minimal and allowed the actors to multi-role with ease. The slickness of the cast’s physicality was impressive, particularly considering it was their opening night, and all should be equally commended on their committed performances. The opening scene required the ensemble to speak in unison, an undeniably testing direction, which they handled confidently and timed well. The glitches and mismatching of words was effective in their abstract portrayal of memories, as was the poetic and repetitive language.
It was a relief, however, to turn to more straightforward dialogue for the second story, as it was here that the humour of the piece was allowed to emerge. Tom Zuberi’s writing, though slightly impenetrable at times, was witty and refreshingly unusual. The unnatural and often formal parlance was fitting for the darkly comic tone of the piece, which was at once sincere and playful. The language and action often jarred intriguingly: a truly inspired moment came in the third story, where Amelia Holt listed increasingly obscure sex acts as Ryan Lea passionately demolished a bucket of KFC chicken.
The Burton Taylor’s lighting abilities were deftly employed, and abrupt colour changes increased the sense of pressure created by the ticking clock. The music ranged from nostalgic Smiths’ songs to distorted versions of Little Mix, subtly complementing the scene transitions between stories. The four scenes were are all distinct in style and narrative, which kept the audience attentive and interested, and each also had a sense of mystery about it. This surreal non-linear piece is bold and daring, and shone too in its more everyday observations and parodies. There are balloons, there is fried chicken and there is a sense of existential dread – what more could we ask for in 2018?