Tag Archives: Serena Haywood

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: Ladylogue! (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Rhiannon Story in "Cake" by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Rhiannon Story in “Cake” by Maud Dromgoole. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A wide selection of hilarious, challenging, and heartbreaking plays on female identity and womanhood executed with grace, variety, and interest.

Overview

Tired of the gender imbalance in British theatre writing, The Thelmas – director Madelaine Moore and producer Rhiannon Story – have given six of the UK’s most formidable female writers the carte blanche of writing a short play for a solo female actor. The result is an interesting mix of love, loathing, obsession, loneliness, and courage that explore womanhood, femininity, and female identity.

Cake, by Maud Dromgoole

Opening the hour was probably one of my least favourite. But that’s not to say it’s the weakest, or that it’s badly written or produced; it’s just the most challenging. Dromgoole’s Year 9 teenage girl blurs the line between feminism and sexism – spurning her teenage-mother friend for tying herself down with a child, whilst giving into dizzy infatuation over a 15 year old boy and imagining herself as a subordinate “good wife”. Although, the general tone of the piece is comic, strong sexist language and submissive sexual imagery makes it dark and uncomfortable at points. Whilst it does make you think about how modernism is defined and portrayed to young women, it’s a little difficult to wholly connect in how uneasy it makes you feel, especially when other audience members are laughing at these more twisted moments when they probably really shouldn’t be!

Rhiannon Story acts out the role with a real youthful electricity, both in her energy and her body language. Even if she can’t quite cream the butter for her cake on stage properly, she exudes a fizzing personality that she uses to bounce off the audience, making them feel very much a part of Droomgoole’s character’s world.

Candyman, by Tina Jay

Again, whilst by no means is badly written or produced, this is another of my least favourites because it’s the least surprising. It tells the story of an older single woman who becomes obsessed with a male escort. But Jay’s character-centric approach to the subject lifts it from being ordinary. It really is a no-holes barred look at one woman’s unhealthy obsession with the idea of a perfect gentleman that she is literally buying into. The erotic is mixed seamlessly with the remorseful, and although we do get a hint of dangerous desperation towards the end, her character is natural and real, never becoming a person that is sensationalised or exaggerated. Despite the extreme situation the narrative has placed her in, she’s not the crazy or deranged spinster which she so easily could have been, she’s a character of human depth and reality.

This is bolstered by a superb performance by Louise Templeton. She constantly fidgets and twitches with addiction and anticipation whilst emanating a slick and devilish “cougar” quality, all juxtaposed with a devastating vulnerability. A superlatively tragic femme-fatale if I ever saw one.

Sukh Ojlah in "Coconut" bu Gulereeane Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Sukh Ojla in “Coconut” by Guleraana Mir. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Coconut, by Guleraana Mir

Cultural identity is a difficult enough subject to brooch without bringing cultural perceptions of womanhood into the equation. However, Mir manages to tackle these head-on and with a crystal-tipped wit and honesty that makes this monologue one of the most uproariously laugh-out-loud segments of the evening. Mir’s tale of the perils of being a late-twenties Pakistani “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) is blunt to the point of hilarity. The wry observations of the people and the perceptions surrounding her character are brazen but bristles with the humour that can only be found in a fondness and affection. Whilst there isn’t any “happy ending” per se, it’s an incredible and heart-warming look at culture vs. femininity that is enlightening as it is rib-tickling.

Sukh Ojla demonstrates her ability as a barnstorming comic actress. Her timing and timbre is enough to put some comedians to shame. She exalts the comedy of Mir’s text with real gusto, but also with a real connection and empathy. If it wasn’t for the programme notes, you’d have been fooled into thinking that Ojla had actually written this herself given the organic ownership she takes of the performance.

ELLA_O’MALLEY_AUDITION.MOV, by Katie McCullough

Body image is a subject that is littered with a lot of extreme and sensational stories. Yet McCullough, through her character, has crafted a monologue that brings a quiet and heartbreaking humanity back to the issue. It starts off somewhat comic, with her character finding a cheerfully sweet sense of self-deprecation about her weight. But as she begins to open up, we start to see a darker more destructive side to the damage body image can do to someone. It soon becomes a crushing account of how low and emotionally destroyed body fascism can bring someone, and is touching to the point of tears. The framing device of Ella making an audition tape cleverly puts the audience in the place of invisible voyeurs – ever prying whilst distant and detached, augmenting Ella’s sense of isolation through judgemental peers.

Jayne Edwards gives a wonderfully natural performance as Ella. Her portrayal of the distraught state she’s been bullied into is incredibly raw and affecting, leaving the audience haunted.

Danielle Nott in "Take A Look At Me Now" by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Danielle Nott in “Take A Look At Me Now” by Serena Haywood. Photograph: Vincent Rowley Photography.

Take A Look At Me Now, by Serena Haywood

Haywood, who’s show Pause was a tremendous success at last year’s Camden Fringe Festival, presents something a little more light-hearted and completely unhinged for Ladylogue!. Her character is preparing for the ultimate imaginary date with Phil Collins in the comfort of her own living room. Absolutely mad cap, there are some side-splittingly funny jokes and quips in this over-the-top examination of female romance and sexual fantasy. Haywood’s handle of one-liners, including a spot of “dildo-blindess”, are supreme and really give the piece a fire-cracker quality. But what’s great is that, despite how outrageous it is, Haywood still manages to find a relatable sanity, especially in the slightly darker undercurrent of her character being driven to this mania through the small cruelties of her previous partner. But otherwise, it’s tender, truthful, and completely nuts!

Danielle Nott also gives an incredibly energetic and adorable performance that’s hilarious to watch. Her movement and voice are wonderfully exuberant, delivering a brilliantly comic performance

I Would Be Brave, by Sarah Hehir

Undoubtedly the most different and serious piece of the evening. Hehir’s glance at domestic violence from the viewpoint of a concerned neighbour with limited resources to help is original and moving. Making this particularly powerful is that her character, whilst trying to do her best in a culture that would rather leave others to themselves, is having to face the realities of her own health and relationship. Hehir writes with a deft and colourful poetry that vividly paints scene and emotion through her words, making it incredibly as engrossing to listen to as to watch being performed. There are also some powerful little bits of imagery, like the wall at the end of the lane blocking off the rest of the world, fortifying the feeling of the intense microcosm that the character finds herself in. It’s these touches that really elevate the short into being a complex and intelligent piece of writing. There is a good deal of ambiguity that runs throughout, leaving the audience to ponder and wonder about some of the things that are unsaid but also, more importantly, why they’re being unsaid. But it does mean that it’s a little unsatisfying as these are never tied-up in any conclusion. Otherwise, it’s an incredibly different and emotive piece.

Amanda Reed’s performance/recitation is prefect. She trips dexterously through the metre and language of Hehir’s poetry whilst exerting a strong character and presence on the stage. It’s impossible to think of any better casting for this monologue.

Verdict

A varied and exuberantly entertaining evening of some brilliant new writing. Whilst some pieces are more original and accessible than others, the bar set by these “ladies who ‘logue” is as dizzying and astonishing as the pieces they’ve produced.

Ladylogue! runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 16 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Theatre Review: Rewritten (Tristan Bates Theatre, London

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in “Done”. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Rating: ****

Déjà vu – noun the experience of perceiving a new situation as if it had occurred before.

Ever get that feeling that you’ve seen something somewhere else before? Well, you’ll definitely get that this week at the Tristan Bates Theatre. The Pensive Federation are at it again, exploring new approaches to new writing by asking writers to explore themes through strict criteria. This time, each writer has been given a three page script as inspiration, with certain caveats as to certain plot points, character names, and props that they must use. The result is a varied and intriguing hour of theatre.

Cat Robey directs all four plays featured, joined by the same two actors for each text, Neil J. Byden and Laura Kim. Writers for this mini-festival include Jo Pockett, Caro Dixey, Serena Haywood, and Sarah Pitard.

Robey, once more, shows off her prowess as a director. Despite only two characters, an amount of props you can count on one hand, and absolutely no set, she manages to give each piece a sense of energy and momentum. By subtly moving the action around the performance space gives them all a sense of flow, never becoming static physically or abstractly. But it’s never so much that it ever looks or feels restless. It’s these little details that make Robey such a talented director. Other little details include enjoying small pauses for the audience to take in a moment, either to enhance comic effect or augment heart-wrenching tragedy.

Byden and Kim are also two actors with a great deal of stamina and the ability to switch effortlessly between four very different characters through the space of the show. Each one they embody is believable and charming.

It also helps that the plays themselves are of a high standard. Haywood’s outrageous romp of geeks, sabotage, animal activism, and over-elaborate flirting, is a joy to watch. Despite how far-fetched the situation is, Haywood manages to create some wonderfully believable characters meaning that we’re really sucked into this twisted tale.

Pitard’s piece looking at friendship, semantics, and support, is also incredibly charming. Although one of the most concise narratives of the lot, it’s insight into friends sharing a space and their lives together is heart-warming and humorous. Furthermore, as the final play, it cheekily and ambiguously ties together some of programme’s earlier plays to it, really teasing you with that feeling of déjà vu.

But the most outstanding piece of all was Dixey’s Done. Never have I seen the subject of assisted suicide approached with such tender humanity and sensitivity. Her characters are incredibly real and honest. But what’s more, despite the grim situation, Dixey still manages to find a heartbreaking sense of humour. Furthermore, Kim and Byden really pull out all the stops for this piece, as the determined woman wishing to end her life, and the steely and mysterious assistant she has hired to help her do so. The result is one of the most intense, affecting, and haunting 15 minutes of your life.

Pockett’s play, however, is the weakest of the quartet; but by no means weak. Despite a very down-to-earth and warts-and-all portrayal of her characters, the problem is that her protagonist/antagonist is so deluded and insufferable that he’s difficult to believe or connect with, causing as much irritation for the audience as with his long-suffering friend. Otherwise, Pockett does well to balance punch-lines and pathos in this look at extreme denial.

The only other issue I can pick with the production is that having the characters re-dress to music between plays does drag. But when the only alternative is to have the audience sit in silence and/or with nothing to look at, it’s a small price to pay for what is otherwise a wholly unique and entertaining evening out.

Rewritten plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 23 August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £8. To book, visit www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com. For more information about The Pensive Federation, visit http://pensivefederation.com.


Theatre Review: Pause (Theatre Collection, London)

Rating: ****

Cataclysm is, for some reason, a particular favourite among new writers, especially on the fringe. Often it leads to sensationalism and shallow explorations of quite serious issues. Therefore, I was apprehensive about Pause, given the play’s plot outline of a woman coping with her son’s head injury leaving him in a vegetative state. However, Serena Haywood proves that she is a writer of brilliant insight by creating a piece that is incredibly honest and human. Couple this with a great production from director TutkuBarbaros and new company Moustache Contraption, this is an hour of touching, endearing, and heartbreaking drama.

The great success of the piece is that, given the tragic circumstance, it doesn’t wallow. The portrayal of Chris’s mother, Victoria, and Chris’ close childhood friend and lover, Mark, are incredibly down to earth. Instead of finding them cursing the air, shaking their fists, and generally being unreasonably grumpy at everyone and everything, they act like people who deal with this exact situation day in and day out; they try to converse normally with the patient as if nothing had happened, despite receiving nothing but a blank response; they try to come to terms with this unwelcomed situation; and they tell themselves little lies to get them through the day. Sometimes, what they say is cynical, sarcastic, and funny. As much as there are tears in this play, there is just as much humour in these everyday people, be it mistaking Tom Daley for David Beckham, or lamenting the decline of the Trio chocolate bar; Haywood’s characters are incredibly real.

As the narrative switches back and forth between before and after the accident, you quickly realise that this play is not just a vignette on adversity. It fasts becomes an essay on loss, deceit, and delusion. Chris keeps the real situation of his university education from his mother, and Victoria is also kept blissfully unaware of the depths of the relationship between Chris and Mark. When this is put into the context of Chris’ accident, the theme of lies and secrets become something profound and affecting; the pain it causes Mark in not being able to openly express his grief, and Victoria’s hopeless optimism for the recovery of her son.

Because of this astute approach to portraying people and a very real life narrative, by not over-egging the drama, the parts where the play is quietly tragic are absolutely devastating. I confess, I was touched to the point where I was moved to tears.

Barbaros directs the show with brilliant flair, and commands an all round great production. Especially notable is the use of light and James Lawrence’s sound design to add variety and atmosphere. Particularly effective is the use of a single pulsating spot light during the play’s climax, accompanied by deafening sound. This created a compelling sense of drama despite the size and simplicity of the Theatre Collection’s space and sparseness of set.

Ryan Wichert, as Chris, and Samuel Casely, as Mark, also give outstanding performances. They share an excellent and believable chemistry when it comes to their juvenile antics, solid camaraderie, and conspicuous, but tender, sexuality. Wichert is also incredibly commendable in his portrayal of someone in a vegetative state, producing a well studied portrait of someone with such a severe disability, rather than relying on shallow caricature.

The only criticism I can give is that some of the solo passages are a little contrived. Characters rattle through several stages of emotions and reasoning in the space of several minutes, and it’s here where the language feels a little forced. But even so, the comprehensive scope of internal conflicts is insightful none the less, and all are still delivered with fantastic conviction.

Haywood and Barbaros have shown how drama and tragedy should be done on the fringe, putting many pieces and productions of new writing to shame. A brilliant and heartfelt piece, and an intense and fulfilling evening out.

Pause plays at the Theatre Collection, London, NW1 9BH, until 25 August 2013, as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, or to find out more about the festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.