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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Significant Other Festival 2017: Conditions
The Vaults
14 March 2017


Deciding to stage The Significant Other Festival in an underground tunnel doesn't faze me. Moving the entrance? That's OK, I have mad compass skills and enough time to explore; I can deal with that. New writers? New actors? New directors? Well, sure. That's all par for the course, I expect no less from the Pensive Federation. But finding out that the theme music has undergone a reboot? Ooh, now they're really testing my ability to adapt to change...

The format may be slightly different this year (and the better for it), yet The Significant Other Festival: Conditions remains the same breathtakingly insane and thrilling new writing event which involves taking a bunch of very talented theatre makers and forcing them to come up with a brand new mini-play in only 10 days. Each piece has to explore relationships with significant others, whether that's between couples, close friends or siblings, and each piece has to incorporate an allocated word or phrase. This year, it's a weather condition. Because, why not?

The ensemble of Inclement

Photography provided by the Pensive Federation

The first half has a bonus show, with six crammed in rather than the usual five. In Emma Allison's Inclement, Mark (John Rayment) is a man caught between a rock and a hard place, or that is to say, between his ex-wife Linda (Pat Garrett) and his new lady love Nina (Rekha John-Cheryan). Some of the panic displayed by Linda doesn't feel realistic enough to be genuine or fake enough to be intended to manipulate Mark or Nina, with the delivery not quite working. However, Nina's rapidly dwindling tolerance for the other woman is spot on. From the acerbic barbs and clipped tone of voice to the deadly mix of silent fury and hurt, John-Cheryan's delivery is simply glorious, capturing both plenty of wit and emotion. Charlotte Peters navigates the complexities of blended families well, her direction revealing each point of tension.

Although props are recycled throughout, the same off-stage wedding from Inclement makes an appearance in Lydia Rynne's Tornado. Best man Adrian (Nick Pearse), not-quite-bridesmaid Kyla (Kate Tulloch) and seriously-who-invited-him angry stranger Nathan (Roberto Landi) make for a odd and pathetic threesome. Again, there's a delicate mix of comedy and sentiment, with Kyla's eyes briefly betraying her pain at being overlooked when Nathan makes a vicious dig at her. While there doesn't seem to be much of a tornado, as they settle down in the emerald green maze to sulk, it's clear that Kyla could do with a bit more courage, Adrian with a bit more of a brain and Nathan with a heart. (And a pair of ruby slippers to get her out of there would be gratefully accepted by Kyla...) Director Sara Reimers manages to bring poignancy to the play's conclusion, giving it an ending that prompts quiet contemplation.

A dress is key to Gust, and whilst it's less of a virginal white meringue, it's no less obvious. Best friends Gail (Elizabeth Guterbock) and Steve (Anthony Cozens) are playing badminton together when ex-flatmate Robin (Kamran Vahabi) shows up. The satisfying thing about Alexander Williams' script isn't the reveal (which is far too signposted for that) rather it's the three different characters' reactions. Trying to ascertain who feels like the significant other and/or the wronged party is intriguing. There's also some great physical comedy captured by Sinead O'Callaghan.

Cozens doubles up as playwright in Humid, in which Miles (Michael Shon) and Izzy (Olivia Negrean) fight over a fish. As Miles peers at the contents of the plastic bag, we're left to wonder whether the health of the fish has anything to do with his relationship's future and if not, whether Izzy's New Age friend Hannah (Katherine Jee) will find a way to kill it off regardless. Peters has fun with the script but again fails to get the most out of one of her performers, with Jee's delivery a little lacklustre compared to some of her peers. Nonetheless, it's a fun little play. Shon delivers a reliably strong performance as always.

The many woes of dating are also captured in Rob Greens' Overcast. Here, cousins Becca (Christi van Clarke) and Angie (Hannah Lucas) are tormenting hapless Warren (Jamie Coleman) in a love - well, triangle is probably the wrong shape. Needless to say, whatever it is, it's messy and it's hurtful. A complicated setup, yet one that director Lysanne van Overbeek deals with well. The script doesn't have a huge deal of substance to it, however when Warren and Angie find some common ground, there's a brief flash of something more meaningful and we can relate to both characters. At the crux of the story, they just want to love and be loved.

The ensemble of Flurry

Photography provided by the Pensive Federation

Bringing a very different mood to the festival, Olu Alakija's Flurry is a campfire spooky story with few surprises to it. However, as you would expect from the genre, that doesn't hinder the audience's enjoyment. In his thriller, Sarah (Leanne May Bennett) and Jen (Virginia Lee) are left shaken when their friend Karen (Ashleigh Cheadle) casually clarifies a detail from the past that seems to change everything for them. Sophie Flack's atmospheric wind noises benefit from the rumbling of trains above and her superb sense of timing. It's not often that the inevitable background noise from staging a show in The Vaults adds to its power, but here it does complement the mood perfectly.

Opening the second half, in Thaw, Colin (Luke Lampard) and girlfriend Jenny (Flora Ogilvy) are desperately trying to give childhood pal Gary a decent send off, when Colin's batshit insane sister Abs (Evelyn Lockley) catches them in the act. Director Adam Hypki brings out the humour of Reece Connolly's script, embracing the sheer lunacy of Lockley's character. The title can be interpreted in more than one way and this vignette neatly meets the brief whilst being a successful mini-play in its own right.

Not all the plays do however land as successfully. Siblings Shelly (Laila Alj), Sonny (Alex Dowding) and Sydney (Laura McGrady) grieve together in Sylvia Arthur's Haze, discussing their shared past and plans for the future. Although Neil Byden does what he can, the script feels undeveloped and rushed, making it hard for the audience to engage with the characters. When all plays are written in such a short space of time, it's inevitable at least one won't quite meet the standard of the others. A shame, but we rapidly move on.

It's a different relationship to the one in Inclement, but again we have two women fighting for the attention and affection of one man in Drought. When her brother Ben (James Lawrence) brings girlfriend Tamsyn (Lydia Smart) to meet her, Annette (Jayne Edwards) is immediately jealous, looking for ways to get rid of the other woman. This instinctive refusal to share a loved one is relatable, with JFW Nutt's script having some nice touches to it. The pacing is even with director Emma Latham drawing us to the conclusion naturally and throwing in plenty of humour along the way.

Rachel Smart as Squidge

Photography provided by the Pensive Federation

They may be old enough to be living away from home and working, but the female dynamic between Jess (Katherine Rodden), Bex (Rachael Oliver) and Squidge (Rachel Smart) is all a bit primary school. That's not to criticise playwright Brian Eley, who accurately captures that disappointing lack of emotional maturity and compassion that female friendship groups that often display. Dilek Latif positions the actresses too close to the front of the stage and we miss the early expressions as the girls giggle together, unsure whether any of this is genuine as we cannot see their faces. However, Latif does nonetheless create a wonderfully playful atmosphere that rapidly turns into something so charged and tense that the audience feel physically uncomfortable at the end of it. No mean feat.

Last but no means least, in Sunny Spells, sensible and much put-upon Linda (Antonia Bourdillon) is unwilling to check her father into a nursing home, to the frustration of her tired boyfriend (Clark Alexander) and hippy sister (Sydney Aldridge). It always amazes me that the Pensive Federation manage to create a small snippet of a musical in 10 days, with composers Franner Otter and Lemon Otter rising the challenge admirably, as they have many times before. Frances Bushe's book is daft and disposable, however the music is certainly something to admire. Bourdillon is without a doubt the strongest singer, carrying her melodies confidently and bolstering the harmonies with the other two performers. Sunny Spells is a little rough around the edges, however you forgive the lack of finesse due to how much fun it is, with Byden bringing the night to an entertaining close.

Cramming the entire cast on the stage at the beginning and end of the night helps us begin to visualise just how many people are involved in the production (although when you consider the playwrights, directors and composers who don't double up as actors, we're talking over 50 in total). The Significant Other Festival is an incredibly diverse and large collaboration. Its very premise merits unconditional love - if you're into new writing, there's simply nothing better than spending time with The Pensive Federation.

Significant Other Festival 2017: Conditions opened on 14 March and runs until 18 March 2017 at The Vaults.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee)

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