Tag Archives: Kate Webster

Theatre Review: The Collective Project (Camden People’s Theatre, London)

the_pensive_federation_cup1Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

The Pensive Federation’s pressure-cooker remit brings out a breadth of variety and ingenuity.

Overview

The Pensive Federation has tasked eight writers to team up with eight directors and twelve actors to create twelve minute pieces inspired by a collective noun and explore power and gender. The result is a really interesting collection of new writing. In Artistic Directors Neil J. Byden and Serena Haywood’s own words,

“…we believe that the time pressure has a an unlocking effect on peoples’ creativity.”

Whilst it certainly has done that, the most interesting element is not so much tapping into a latent talent within each writer, but the clear evidence of each collaboration within each piece, especially with the actors. Across the pieces, you start to see each actor playing similar roles: almost type-casting themselves. But in doing so, both the writing and performance are well delivered and feel effortless when this happens. The same can be said for the direction in certain pieces, where the collaboration has brought out an expert directional vision too.

Whilst only a handful of pieces have managed to create something truly surprising, given the race against the clock, all works are of a solid quality.

Squad, by Martin Malcolm
Dir: Eduard Lewis
Rating: ***

Certainly the most current of the piece, set in a shopping mall during a Black Friday sales. It starts off as a growing and brutal look at small-minded authority, where power corrupts abhorrently. Yet, just as things start to get really dramatic, Malcolm pips in with comic relief that destroys any tension and gravitas, feeling like things are hurriedly tied-up as the twelve minute gong approaches. Malcolm doesn’t quite capitalise on the subject’s potential perhaps because of this imposed brevity, and is something that might be more powerful if it were a longer and more paced piece.

Faculty, by Sherhan Lingham
Dir: Neil J. Byden
Rating: *****

Teacher dramas are nothing new, but none the less Lingham has managed to find a fresh narrative through embracing The Pensive Federation’s remit. Here, she really plays with ideas of separate characteristics, personality clashes, and collectivism, whilst cleverly drawing parallels between bullying among children and adults. Lingham manages to create a story from start to finish that doesn’t feel squeezed into it’s twelve minute window, and remains organic throughout.

The entire cast here also embrace their characters here incredibly well. John Rayment gives a commanding performance as the smug and conniving headmaster. Jared Rodgers, as the member of staff on the fringes of the clique upon who’s actions everything hinges upon, takes the pace to a wonderful apex of suspense.

Chapter, by Alan Flannigan
Dir: Madeline Moore
Rating: *****

Perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Flannigan, like Lingham, has really embraced the remit to create something that’s clever and intelligent as well as pacey. Particularly, the exploration of a sense of togetherness despite the fact that the characters and dialogue are isolated and fractured from each other. It starts off incredibly enigmatic leaving you wondering what the narrative is, until it all starts to slowly piece together with different perspectives from all angles. As the picture slowly unveils itself, a gripping drama unfolds.

This is also a piece where the direction is just as inspired as the writing. Moore isn’t scared of silences to build drama and tension, and manages to keep a sense of pace and activity despite the fact that for the majority of the piece everything is static. Yet, there is one slow crescendo of movement pointing towards the climax, and it’s engrossing.

Bouquet, by Dan Nixon
Dir: Laura Attridge
Rating: ****

A mob family, a partner kept in the lurch, and a black sheep-cum-florist. Nixon subverts the concept of a group by focusing on the outcast of an otherwise tight-knit throng. It’s an incredibly interesting idea, and Nixon’s setting of this among a family of East End gangsters is one that offers drama and intrigue. Yet, as clever and as engaging to watch as it is, you get the feeling that there’s a bigger piece behind the snapshot here. When the twelve minutes are up you really want to see it go further, especially given the relationship you build with the central long-suffering character.

The collaboration between writer and director is also really strong here. There’s a flurry of action that goes on around the central character, for which they’re very much stuck powerless in the background for. Yet Nixon and Attridge write and direct in a manner that mean’s they’re not lost or forgotten about, even if everything that goes on around them doesn’t at all involve them. It’s incredibly meticulous and well executed, with just the right amount of interjections to remind you that the main character is still there, whilst directionally making sure the character is visible and central, though dis-attached, to the action at all times.

Rodgers, again, proves his ability for playing a withdrawing character, this time with a real tenderness and charm that strikes a rapport and an empathy with the audience without really trying.

It’s just a shame the piece feels more like an extract than a microcosm. More of this, please!

Audience, by Isla Gray
Dir: Jessica Radcliffe
Rating: ***

Game shows are ridiculous, and this is something that Gray really brings out. A group of contestants must work as a team against each other. Gray’s rainbow of characters and ridicule of trash TV certainly brings out some great observational jokes. Yet overall, this piece doesn’t seem to say too much or go very far with regards to plot progression. In fact, the build-up to the crux seems to be padded out: one of the pieces where it feels like twelve minutes is a little too long instead of being too short. An amusing diversion, but one that has the least amount of impact in exploring the themes of “collection”, especially when compared to the others. Whilst there would otherwise be some great fodder for character exploration, all personas involved feel a little too shallow to really amount to much other than a few laughs and a flash-in-the-pan comedy.

Bench, by Guleraana Mir
Dir: Neil Sheppeck
Rating: ****

This is a sweet little piece, looking at a bunch of misfits who go to play football every weekend, although invariably mostly ending up on the bench watching their team lose. There’s certainly some charming interactions between the cacophony of characters here, bringing out a homely humanity between them. Even if the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere in the twelve minutes, it’s still a satisfying still-life of how and why six people who couldn’t be more opposite find solace in coming together, even if it never goes the way they expect it to. A great little piece of character comedy.

Murmuration, by Kate Webster
Dir: Rhiannon Robertson
Rating: ***

Another piece that’s very current, looking at homelessness at Christmas. Two volunteers have set out to host a Christmas party for those who have been displaced; one a regular volunteer, and the other there out of circumstance rather than of charity. Webster’s exploration of the different types of people and personalities that make up both the homeless and the volunteers is refreshing and doesn’t linger or labour on any easy stereotypes. Their characters are fully realised and all are believable and interesting people.

Yet, although a nice exploration how group dynamics can bring out different things in different people, it doesn’t offer anything overly surprising, despite one of the characters’ back-stories. What’s more, towards the end the catalysts start to come too quick and too obviously, feeling less than organic. Again, a sense that it’s trying to rush through its epiphanies and tie everything up before time runs out. Otherwise, there’s potential for a something deep and meaningful if it had a bit more space to breathe and develop.

Host, by Camilla Whitehill

Dir: Chloe Mashiter
Rating: ****

Whitehill has created a wonderfully comic titbit despite the stringent remit. She creates a situation and a cast of characters that naturally finds the funny rather than trying to force something through. However, Whitehill still manages to keep it within the essence of the showcase. Playing wonderfully with the title, Host, Whitehill toys with both the singular and the collective meaning of the noun: a strong leader among the group of friends, trying to support one of their own via an intervention.Only one or two of the jokes are over-laboured a little, but otherwise, it’s a strong piece of comedy. It’s tight, it’s funny, and it’s all you can really ask for to round off the evening.

Again, this is another example of where the actors and writer have worked well together to create a piece that capitalises on their talents and personalities. Katherine Rodden is fantastic as the down and out misanthrope; Neil J. Byrden brings out some great visual moments as the fool of the piece, and Helen Jessica Liggat is steadfast as the mastermind and head of the group of friends. A strong piece that really embraces and excels in what the evening has set out to do.

Verdict

Everything showcased here is certainly solid and an achievement given the remit. But some writers have certainly thrived better than others. But even then, whilst some might not have prospered in the twelve day, twelve minute window given, they’ve still come up with potential for developing their ideas into longer works. An intriguing evening of intelligence and ingenuity.

The Collective Project took place at the Camden People’s Theatre, London, NW1 2PY from 17-20 December 2014. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.

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Camden Fringe Review: The Gentlemen of Horror (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

the gentlemen of horrorRating: ****

In A Nutshell:

James Goss’s fusion of trivia and deft wit creates a charming tale of fame and friendship.

Overview

We first join Christopher Lee in a makeshift green room with Peter Cushing in 1957, working on the Hammer Horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein: Lee was Frankenstein’s monster, whilst Cushing was the titular role. From then on, we join them in the back rooms spread across various films, striking up a life-long companionship. But will their friendship last as Cushing’s lot dwindles whilst Lee rises to fame?

Writing

James Goss has had a good career in professional geekery, having looked after the BBC’s Cult website as well as writing Doctor Who audiobooks, other radio plays, and published several Whovian anthologies. But what’s great is that, turning to these two titans of the halcyon days of the British horror B-Movies, he’s managed to combine his wealth of cult trivia with a crystal-tipped but subtle wit to weave an affectionate and endearing narrative. In contriving these imaginary meetings off-set, Goss extrapolates a tale of  their friendship, careers, and families that’s as touching as they are engrossing. Pop in some wonderful pieces of knowing hindsight, and the result is a funny and ultimately charming text of quips, golfing, personal aspirations, and the quiet private lives of two acting behemoths, forming intriguing plot-points out of nuanced fandom.

The only problem is that this piece is ultimately niche. Unless you’re a fan of either Cushing, Lee, or Hammer Horror, some of the impact of the play risks being lost. Thankfully, Goss generally ensures that the characters are properly introduced, as if assuming a certain level of audience ignorance. If viewed as if a piece of fiction, there’s still plenty within the play that establishes Cushing and Lee as rounded characters complete with solid backgrounds. So, even if you haven’t a clue who they are, you still get an easy sense of what’s actually going on as well as the wider cultural significance. But still, those interested in these two characters and the films they starred in and produced will certainly get more out of the show than those who don’t.

Direction and Production

There is little by the way of production here – nothing but a coat rail, a table, and two chairs – as this is actually a play that doesn’t actually need much production at all as it’s the writing that does the talking. However, director Kate Webster does well to garnish the play with nice little touches, such as audio clips from film trailers between scenes to set up the next period the play takes place in. Webster could also have obsessed over trying to replicate the costumes and make-up from the films that both Cushing and Lee represent. For example, Lee’s Frankenstein’s monster mask is replaced by a rag-bag of bandages. Whilst the reference to Lee having to eat through a straw whilst wearing the mask sits a little at odds because of this, it ultimately doesn’t deter from the reference it’s making. It looks far better than instead using some cheap Halloween mask or trying to make do with a poor-man’s replica: better to succeed in evoking than fail in imitating.

In short, Webster has placed enough of a well-founded assurance in Goss’s text and her actors that all she needs to do is embellish a few points and chaperone things along to make this work well, which she does confidently and competently.

Cast

The problem is always going to be how do you capture the immense presence and charismas of Cushing and Lee without being second-rate emulations. The answer is, you can’t. Unfortunately, Matthew Woodcock playing Cushing, and William McGeough playing Lee, seem to be trying a little too hard at the beginning of the play, coming across a little forced: McGeough especially seeming more voice than personality. But quickly both Woodcock and McGeough start to relax and begin to become believable as people rather than trying to be mistaken for Cushing and Lee. Eventually they start to really bounce off a close sense of companionship and chemistry as mere characters, really lifting the text and doing justice to Goss’s writing, making them very sweet and cosy to watch.

Verdict

Hammer Horror fans and film-buffs will really appreciate this enjoyable riff on Cushing and Lee’s off-screen relationship. But even if you’re not endowed with encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of celluloid, this shouldn’t put you off what is otherwise a cheekily delightful and heart-warming play.

The Gentlemen of Horror plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 7 August 2014. Tickets are £7.50. To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.