Oddball at the Gatehouse: One oddly brilliant hour with one oddly brilliant woman
Francesca Maria Forristal is a normal person. Or, at least, she tried to be – before she discovered that she was an oddball, then decided to dedicate a show to her oddballishness. Her one-woman show is a deeply sincere, sometimes dark, musical comedy about living with, and trying to recover from, an eating disorder; a behind-the-scenes look at the way she thinks and the way she has thought before.
Set in her bedroom as she prepares for a date, the audience assumes the action will focus on her suitor, the oft-referenced ‘Emily’, or perhaps Forristal’s relationship with love. Ah yes, a quirky-but-not-lame modern-era LGBTQ+ rom-com type hour. Lovely. But it isn’t, and it’s not. Forristal is ostensibly lovely and quirky (who doesn’t love an impromptu musical number reminiscent of The Book of Mormon?), true, but that’s not what’s important here. The date herself, always implied, never heard nor seen, is, too, irrelevant. What does matter is: what’s really going on in the mind of this young woman who’s about to eat dinner at a restaurant? Indeed, ‘Oddball’ is not an aw-shucks sweet little hour. It is 60 minutes of Forristal brutally confronting her relationship with herself. A few cuttingly caricaturist impersonations of former partners are thrown in, sure, but these only serve to emphasise how far the show is from a series of well-rehearsed party pieces, and how the show is actually about a real person, finally seen, with a real story, finally heard.
The audience’s greatest privilege is the personal insight Forristal gives them into her life as a psychiatric inpatient at Maudsley Hospital in South London. In a subgenre of student festival dramas which claim to show what mental health problems look like but are invariably too coy to offer much in the way of true insight, ‘Oddball’ is perhaps the realest of its kind. Forristal is strikingly honest with her audience. She bravely relives neurotic nights of disguised exercises for the benefit of her audience. She recreates a public purge and details the cardiac arrest she suffered as a result of losing so much weight. The audience, however, is never repelled or compelled to leave out of discomfort. They can only ever be seen laughing at her I-can-make-these-jokes-but-you-can’t punch lines.
This show is as much an education as it is entertainment, and Forristal is a good teacher. She doesn’t just tell you about the depth and range to which an eating disorder can affect a teenage girl’s life. She demonstrates. She embodies her former self. You see glimpses into the social difficulties she faces; not only in her overthought preparations for a date, but in her interactions with mental health professionals at the hospital (namely, the demonised Bridget). You notice her instinctive and submissive reactions to Karen, the smart watch which informs her that “even water has 0.1 calories”. You feel for her recurrent attempts to recover, and recover again, and to be “more recovered than anyone else who has ever recovered before” (to limited success; she freely admits that her struggles are very much ongoing, though less disabling and guided by social support).
Forristal has achieved something great. Whilst she will rebuke pity when it comes to her mental health recovery, one hopes she will receive praise for this exceptional work. She has lived through an eating disorder that will remain unrelatable to most. But she has, at the very least, enriched the understanding of all for the sake of the few who suffer misunderstood.
Catch Oddball performing in Dragprov’s Velvet Curtain Club at London’s Improv Theatre on October 5th: https://www.facebook.com/events/410807319791070/?event_time_id=410807326457736