views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Tristan Bates Theatre
9th August 2016


Publicity photograph for Square

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Square is all about connections. Which is apt, given The Pensive Federation are made up of them. Pen Fedders past and present are always cropping up on the fringe circuit, on-stage, off-stage, wherever they can spot an opportunity to make new and exciting theatre. In Will Howells' first full-length play, following the death of much beloved civil-partnered couple Ally and Emma, Venus (Jayne Edwards), Sophia (Hannah McClean), Thomas (Jared Rogers) and Olly (Anthony Cozens) find themselves left behind with little to hold the group together. In an attempt to honour their friends' memory, the unlikely foursome agree to force each other to stay in touch. It's a decision that initially is met with reluctance by all of them, however they soon form a real connection and begin to meet up regularly.

This may be the first time we've seen four Pen Fedders perform a full-length play (it's normally an extreme of just one or many), but there are echoes of the company's past work throughout. For instance, the stage carpentry which is disassembled, reassembled and moved around during blackouts is reminiscent of the company's love for reusing props in unrelated short plays. Made-up Monopoly rules are used to highlight the differences and similarities between the protagonists and create a narrative arc for the story. The short plays that the Pensive Federation have previously written have always been created according to very particular rules that they've made up themselves. In another nod, a couple who never appear on stage yet remain at the core of this production are civil partnered. There are lots of lovely little touches that make this production uniquely, well, penfeddish. It's about time someone coined an adjective to describe this company's style.

Many comedy shows in this year's Camden Fringe have desperately tried to write in some Brexit jokes to prove how current and cutting edge they are, with varying degrees of success. In some cases, they've fallen completely flat. Perhaps surprisingly, it's a piece of theatre that has ridden the wave of current affairs so masterfully, with dinner party conversation involving Leave voters so sharply and magnificently written by Howells. Actually, given how the company are used to producing new pieces of theatre under pressure, writing in new lines, learning them and getting the delivery spot on probably doesn't come as much of a shock to anyone who's seen their work previously.

At times the wit is so sharp that we find it hard to control the heartfelt, genuine, raucous laughter that escapes. Killer lines are delivered well (Edwards manages to forever change how I will hear a particular region of France pronounced) and all four actors create very believable, well-rounded characters. Having trod the very same boards the previous year in Rewritten, director Neil J Byden guides the actors into making the Tristan Bates their playground and getting the most out of all of them. It's impossible to single out any of the actors for individual praise as there are no weak links in this cast, but what I will say is they all deliver their finest and most memorable performances to date.

The company's collective strengths all come together in Square, with this being their strongest theatrical offering in living memory. (No small statement, give how many shows they've put on previously.) Apart from a very brief set malfunction which is swiftly forgotten, it's hard to find anything to fault. The Pensive Federation have reaffirmed their position as one of the most exciting new writing theatre companies with this beautifully crafted tale. We challenge you not to enjoy this - oh, and we also challenge you to play Spot the Pen Fedder whilst you're there. There's always at least one or two alumni in the audience. We told you - connections.

Square opened on 8th August and runs until 13th August 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)

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