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The Collective Project
Camden People's Theatre
19th November 2013

★★★★☆

The Pensive Federation are a group of theatre makers who enjoy working under pressure. Or at least, we assume they do, because they have a habit of staging productions put together in a ridiculously short time, with equally ambitious artistic constraints. Writers are given a word or theme, a few days to frame a narrative around it, and directors and actors a similarly short time to translate that vision. Sometimes you just wonder why they put themselves through it all - some companies only put on one play a year, a less stressful tactic.

With their latest challenge, The Collective Project, The Pensive Federation have taken eight directors, eight playwrights and 12 actors and given them 12 days - inviting them to come up with eight plays of just 12 minutes each, all based around a collective noun. It's a variation on a theme, but actually, it's one which really works. This feels a much meatier offering than their previous productions - The Significant Other Festival and Rewritten - and part of this may be from experience working together as we've seen a number of these theatre makers share a bill previously. But an element of depth comes from the tweaks to the format. Increasing the number of collaborators has resulted in better ideas, both in concept and execution.

The first half consists of four plays with an all-female cast and all-male creative team and crew, with gender switching for the second half. This isn't a case of girls versus boys, but there is a clear difference in approach. Actresses Alexandra Donnachie, Caroline Short, Cassandra Bond, Dilek Latif, Kim Burnett and Rhiannon Story play characters who are supportive, catty and many shades in between. The Collective Project looks at inclusion, exclusion and status, and the first half focuses on the complexities of platonic female relationships, ably tackling those themes.

Actors Alfie Rowland, Daniel Page, JP Conway, Michael Shon, Patrick Neyman and Ryan Wichert take the stage afterwards, and whilst male friendships are examined there's also a large helping of man love, the writers for these plays deciding a bit of romance is needed. The male and female writing teams do have different nouns, and that was always going to spark diverse ideas, but it's interesting how the two genders have approached relationships.

With eight plays in total, it's inevitable that the quality will vary, some are a bit of something and nothing, others have a deeper message. The direction by Neil Sheppeck in opening number, Party, is clever, and the writing by Andrew Curtis ticks all the challenge boxes, but the actual story soon fades away.

Congregation, written by Joseph Lidster, is the highlight of the first half. It centres around a group of misfits who all go to church, not because they're particularly religious, but because they're looking for acceptance. Burnett, who is consistently excellent throughout, takes the opportunity to prove she is more than just a pure comedic actor. She brings the funny with ease, but here she shows off more depth, bringing a bleakness into her performance.

Giving her character a deliberate, painfully slow delivery and a busybody personality, we laugh at her, then are instantly ashamed when her character opens up. Burnett maintains the same emotionless monotone, but suddenly there's a dullness in her eyes which changes everything.

Director Richard Jacques certainly gets the most out of the women, with carefully considered timing and blocking in the piece. The singing is a joy to hear, with each character fighting for dominance, irrespective of talent or appropriateness. This particular play is light on props, but it definitely feels like one of the more polished pieces of the night. There's a clear skill in putting it all together.

The highlight of the second half, and perhaps the entire night, is Polly Churchill's Caravan. Set in the male toilets of a hotel, Wichert and Rowland play disgruntled waiting staff, with Neyman the obnoxious brother of the bride, Shon the anxious best man and Conway and Page both guests. The setting is perfect for exploring the challenge word, here it refers to a group of people travelling together, with safety in numbers.

A short piece of video is used to introduce each play, explaining the collective noun in point and defining it in the context of its play. This helps give the production a more professional feel. It's a pleasure to see The Pensive Federation now starting to pay attention to the finer details, shaping their work into something with a slicker finish.

If Burnett is the standout female actress, Wichert is the standout male, especially in Caravan. As a Polish waiter whose journey to the UK in search of a better life has ended in fights about chicken supremes and Buck's Fizz, Wichert plays this as a pure comedy role, with overblown emotions ranging from anger to petulance, sharp timing and wonderful movement.

I deliberately haven't picked apart each play, for a start, I would be here until the cows come home, there's a lot to comment on, most of it very good. This is one occasion where failure to namecheck doesn't mean anything, there's just too much talent, no weak links. But I'm also hoping a little mystery persuades you to check out this work - it's certainly one of the most successful new writing nights I've seen this year.

The Collective Project opened on 19th November and runs until 23rd November 2013 at the Camden People's Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Warren Street (Northern, Victoria)



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