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