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The Collective Project
Tristan Bates Theatre
14th December 2016

★★★☆☆

The company

Photography provided by The Pensive Federation

It's that time of year again. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the Pensive Federation writing some new plays... If the past five years have passed you by, The Collective Project is an annual, ever-so-slightly-mad collaboration between a worship of writers, a cry of actors and a few directors to boot. I'm sure there's all kinds of festive magic and fairy dust behind the scenes, but I always imagine The Collective Project to be what happens when you lock lots of creative types in a room for 12 days and hope for the best. Quite often the best is surprisingly good.

Making brand new theatre is always a risky business and unfortunately this year's show isn't one of The Pensive Federation's more memorable collaborations. Although we don't necessarily expect all the plays to be polished given the time constraints, we always hope for self-contained, complete pieces and most of the plays this year feel like mere extracts, with far too many threads left hanging. Demanding? Us? Well, quite possibly, but as much fun as the night is, we have seen better from The Pensive Federation. The two strongest contributions are without a doubt Kate Webster's Lying and Andy Curtis's Huddle, with both pieces quite happily standing on their own as well as fitting into the theme nicely.

After her latest Camden Fringe show We Are Not Alone, Webster still clearly has little green men on her mind, with Lying a short piece about a bunch of individuals enlisted to research the effects of space on ordinary humans. The idea not only brilliantly tackles group dynamics and Webster's assigned collective noun, but holds up to scrutiny in its own right and makes for a thought-provoking and entertaining little play. Impassioned attempts by a newcomer (Tamara Camacho) to befriend the team of amateur astronauts and their reactions to her efforts pack more depth that you would expect in only ten minutes.

Holding up the rear in the second half with a play set on a crowded train (ah, it's an oldie but a goodie; a familiar sight that always gets a giggle), Curtis explores sibling related squabbles, relationship bust ups and the obligatory drunken stranger. If it sounds like a lot of ideas compressed into a short period of time, that's because it is, however directors Neil J Byden and Sophie Flack also compress the six actors into a very small space. With so little personal space, the quick-paced development of the storyline feels very natural. Whilst Antonia Bourdillon's credible performance of a drunk here is warm and funny, she deserves a mention for her other excellent performances too. Felicity Walsh and Natalie Harper's sisterly fighting is also very believable, drawing out the humour of Webster's script.

Jonathan Edgington's Legion features an interesting chance encounter, which leaves a traveller (Stephanie Silver) feeling slightly unsettled in her relationship with her boyfriend (David Shears). Although there are some intriguing human behaviours and a strong start, it leaves us wanting more - too much for it to be wholly satisfying. And whilst the idea of how closely memory is linked to smell is covered well in Rob Greens' Aroma, with an especially funny performance by Paul Thomas, the entire play feels as fleeting as a squirt of perfume. It's nice, yet doesn't really linger.

Isabel Dixon's Gloryifying is a bit of a strange dinner party, with heavy absurdist influences. It's a bold decision to write something so Marmite-y given the usual style of entries into The Collective Project and one which largely pays off, with some clever satire. Julie Burrow's Destruction also shows a clear source of inspiration, here The Truman Show. She focuses less on the puppet and more on the puppeteers, with Jessica Aquilina playing a rapidly more and more reluctant puppeteer. The tension comes to an abrupt end.

Whilst the different personalities in Jayne Edward's Scoop are clearly defined, the scenario of fighting for coveted jobs at the end of their internship feels a bit old hat. Conor Carroll's Worm pokes fun at jungle-based reality shows, which isn't particularly cutting edge either. However there is some clever direction allowing a couple's living room and the game show environment to coexist in the same space, before colliding as the couple get more and more involved with the programme. The over-investment of the man (Paul Holliday) in the misery of the failed Z-lister (Simon Christian) is perhaps funnier than the contestant's plight.

Although some of these plays do leave us with more unanswered questions than we would like, it's still an enjoyable night and The Collective Project remains one of the most important theatrical events of the year. Do or die, we need to take a chance on new writing because it's what keeps our theatre scene from stagnating. The Pensive Federation are certainly one of the leading companies when it comes to continuously innovating and it's always worth seeing their work, even when they're not bringing their A game.

The Collective Project ran from 12th to 17th December 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly)



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