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The Collective Project 2016 at Tristan Bates Theatre

The Collective ProjectThe wonderful thing from a reviewer’s perspective about events like The Collective Project is that not only is it fruitless to do any background reading prior to attending an evening of new short plays, it is quite impossible. One must simply show up and see what is presented on the night. Twelve days prior to this short run, not one of these twelve-minute plays had even been written. In that time, these plays had been drafted, re-drafted, finalised, rehearsed, dress rehearsed (you get the idea) – and put in front of paying public audiences.

Destruction by Julie Burrows sees a group of – well, I’m not sure what they were. Fairies, perhaps, or beings with fairy-tale powers, in line with the sort of pseudo-deities found in Chaucer tales or Shakespeare plays, with the ability to influence events that occur in the lives of human beings on Earth but without them (the human beings) necessarily knowing these ‘gods’ are at work. This concept of supernatural powers in force is brought firmly into the twenty-first century, with references to tests and test results. Ridiculous as it is with the benefit of hindsight, it was convincing enough to make me wonder where the head cold I suddenly developed hours before attending this box-set of mini-plays really came from. A deep question is asked by the group’s leader, considering the morality and overall effectiveness of what could be interpreted as random acts of unkindness: “Maybe chaos is necessary sometimes.” The premise that mistakes should be allowed to happen, in some circumstances, as that is the fastest way a human being can learn, is an intriguing one.

Glorifying by Isabel Dixon doesn’t pull punches in highlighting the absurdity of certain policies of a certain President-Elect. A group meets on Friday evenings for booze and conversation, but doesn’t want anyone else joining in. This group, unless I’ve completely missed the point, is a metaphor for the establishment of a leading industrialised nation (precisely which one is not of paramount importance for the purposes of the play) who sees no point even in controlled immigration, and want to build a wall to prevent others from entering. The conclusion to this piece was left unresolved, which was an excellent call: it would have been preachy had it taken any of the possible plausible paths.

Legion by Jonathan Edgington has a group ‘thrown off’ a train. I took ‘thrown off’ to mean ‘asked to leave’ – the reasons are made clear in the narrative – but oddly they are at a station with no signage, with no working payphone, and its remoteness means there is no mobile telephone signal either. This came across to me as a consideration of the charismatic authority figure. A lady, unknown to the group, who claims to be a recruitment consultant, manages to get them to answer a barrage of questions before doing a group activity. She doesn’t say who she is recruiting for, citing client confidentiality, and the group wise-up to what she is probably really up to soon enough. A shining example of ‘better together’ – the possible wider implications would take some time to write about properly.

Lying by Kate Webster is set in space – or is it? All becomes clear in the end, though I wondered some kind of artificial gravity mechanism was in place. This could have otherwise been put down to the limitations of the theatre to accurately depict movement in a weightless environment, except that one of the characters does press-ups at one point. If this mission to Mars seems dramaturgically ridiculous, it is in the simultaneous and paradoxical close affinity and thorough dislike between certain characters that the play strikes a chord. This proved to be a good example of ‘groupthink’, as well as striving to make the best out of a situation made all the more stressful by a key development in the story. There’s a lot in this short piece about peer pressure and conforming to a majority view, however absurd that view may be.

Worm by Conor Carroll has Simon, apparently a sitting Member of Parliament, doing a ‘bushtucker trial’ (in all but name – there are, I suspect, certain issues about copyright which the creative team wishes to avoid). This piece was strangely compelling in its exploration of the banality of reality television shows and the spellbinding power it holds over its loyal audiences. The contrast in two flatmates in their front room, one watching and even participating in a telephone ballot, the other not seeing the point in any of the proceedings, is equally stark and hilarious. As Simon rants about wanting to be left alone, I couldn’t help thinking about the oddness of our world in which some crave celebrity adulation but don’t have it whilst others would like a quieter life but find themselves relentlessly pursued.

Aroma by Rob Greens considers a scenario in which a recently deceased man was beloved by practically everyone except his own son, though here there is enough in the father’s lifestyle and personality to justify such a negative response, beyond simply not getting on with one another. The context would not ordinarily lend itself to laugh-out- loud laughter, and it is a testament to both the writing and acting that it does. Everyone, allegedly, has a unique smell, hence the play’s title. The son’s lack of sentimentality was refreshing in a play otherwise filled with characters that are too emotionally charged to think rationally.

Scoop by Jayne Edwards was, for me, the most enjoyable of the eight plays. A ‘scoop of journalists’ are waiting for an update on the status of their job applications for positions at what I assumed to be a national newspaper – which one is not the salient point. Looking at the darker side of entertainment journalism, elements of the play are reminiscent of the 2014 National Theatre production of Great Britain, a satirical look at the working lives of tabloid hacks. There’s a lot to ponder over, as certain journalists simply think of showbusiness journalism as an example of supply and demand, whilst others think of journalism as a profession worthy of bringing more serious stories to the public’s attention. I suppose there’s a place for all sorts of news, but interestingly, this isn’t a view shared by the paper’s editorial team, who now decide to take on only one applicant, having previously agreed on four. This proved to be a fascinating consideration of the cut-throat nature of the media industry.

Huddle by Andy Curtis was highly topical, and one which many people in London can relate to. A crowded late evening Northern line London Underground train is ‘being held’. Whilst the plot is almost entirely plausible and a pleasure to watch, it would be most unpleasant to be in such a situation. I say ‘almost’ – the idea of people who don’t know each other in conversation on the Tube is difficult for me to fathom. But in all the various happenings between passengers – one forces her way into an already-full section of the train, another feels faint, still another needs the toilet – there’s a poignant metaphor in leaving behind a bag full of vomit, in a surprisingly stark reminder to not bother carrying around unnecessary baggage from the past in continuing through the journey of life.

There were a lot of ideas bandied about during the course of the evening, and some scope to further develop these pieces into fully-fledged plays. I didn’t really detect an overall theme, aside from ‘nouns’, though the opening sequence to the show told the audience that in any event. As a collection of short plays, it felt quite disjointed. It was all very well-performed, however, and demonstrated the power of collaboration, where the cast are just as much as part of the creative process as the creatives themselves.

Three and a half gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Following the critically acclaimed Square, in its fifth anniversary year, The Pensive Federation brings a unique combination of the Pensive Federation company together at the Tristan Bates Theatre to explore group dynamics in their annual festival; The Collective Project, which challenges a collection of actors, writers and directors to closely collaborate to create 8 new 12 minute plays in 12 days.

Using collective nouns as inspiration, each play is developed in a 12-day process with the actors’ voices inspiring the writer and then this vision realized by one director. Each actor will be performing in four different plays. All in twelve days. This project takes theatre collaboration to a higher level. Using the Pensive Federation’s ethos of accessible theatre reflecting the magic in the mundane, and the extraordinary in the everyday, how will the writers challenge themselves to think beyond the obvious whilst the clock ticks?

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