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The Collective Project: Genres
Etcetera Theatre
11th November 2015

★★★☆☆

The company

Photography provided by The Pensive Federation

When you have a collective of theatre makers just bursting with ideas, how do you focus that talent? Well, The Pensive Federation's artistic directors Neil J Byden and Serena Haywood divide them up into groups, provide them with a noun, a genre and a very short time period in which to create something meaningful. From experience, that extreme pressure that the artists all willingly sign up for can spark some very interesting and unexpected responses. Interesting and unexpected being two of the adjectives that can frequently describe some of the Fringe's best offerings. So far, so good. However, whilst The Collective Project: Genres remains a noble undertaking, the writing this time doesn't live up to the high standards that the company has previously set for themselves.

It feels like an odd decision to open with a play starring actors acting badly. If I hadn't been familiar with the performers' previous work, I might have found the start of Andrew Curtis' Convoy quite uncomfortable. Wrongfooting the audience in this way is undoubtedly a deliberate tactic, however I think it risks setting the wrong atmosphere. Curtis' script does indeed fit its brief, admirably so, but without the context of the play's title and allocated genre, its purpose seems unclear. Whilst it's important that the artists create something that fits within the narrow framework of the challenge, every short play should stand on its own, and I fear this one just doesn't.

Daniel Hinchliffe's Diligence is based on a definition involving civil servants which I swear I have never come across before, and similarly tries really hard, perhaps too hard, to accommodate its genre. Many of the Coronation Street references are too obscure for those who doesn't avidly follow life on the cobbles and parts of the material do feel stretched out. However, the conclusion is rather more satisfying that its start, and there are some individual performances worthy of note. Jayne Edwards' cool delivery and Paul Thomas's pathetic whining are especially polished and humorous.

Whilst I remain doubtful audiences will get on board with the company's definition of diligence, Pallor certainly uses a real if rather obscure meaning. Leah Cowan's plot may not have an obvious link to pallor, but it works both as an independent play and a part of the project, and provokes some genuine laughs. Overseen by Jeremy Donovan's CEO cum nightwatchman character, the employees of a not-for-profit organisation unknowingly get ready for their last Christmas working together. Antonia Bourdillon's highly stressed female go-getter boss stands out, as does Anthony Cozen's relaxed hippy-esque traveller.

Although Will Howells' Forest doesn't explore any new ideas, Byden's sense of timing here is razor-sharp, and the way in which he approaches the playwright's characterisation is excellent. Throwaway remarks by Katherine Rodden towards her on-stage husband Thomas garner well-earned hearty chuckles, with Thomas and Rhiannon Story's hateful roles underlining the sad theory that a perfect human is an utterly flawed one. Bourdillon steps in here as a last minute new girlfriend replacement for Jared Rogers's character, and yet manages to capture the right amount of nervousness and protectiveness. Only the script-in-hand betrays her last minute casting.

We skirt around other people's perceptions and our own sense of self-awareness in Penelope Faith's Reflection, a period piece about an injured solider (Rogers), his sickly fiancée (Rodden), and their seemingly happy inner circle. There's a clever concept in the script somewhere, it just doesn't quite fully emerge. None of the plays are long, they're not meant to be, yet Reflection feels particularly fleeting.

Laura Attridge pitches Kate Webster's Colony as an over-the-top comedy, with her play within a play of teachers helping to stage a school production becoming more of a farce than a heist. The delivery is a touch too overblown for my tastes, however the script does tackle the ideas of inclusion and exclusion well. We see this too in Jo Pockett's medical drama Helix, which explores what happens when private financing and red tape are thrust into the NHS. The camaraderie between the medical staff is very credible, making for a marked shift in tone when ice queen paper pusher Hannah McLean enters.

It turns out that they say it best when they say nothing at all, with Brian Coyle's Whisper by far the strongest contribution. Set in a library where silence is key, we observe a librarian (Donovan) watching over his customers: a warring couple (Bourdillon and McClean), a drunk (Tracey George) and a would-be pair of romantic fools (Cozens and Kim Burnett). Although some of the technical cues are slightly off, with the silent movie subtitles not always matching up with the actions, the discrepancy is never such that it detracts from the wonderful comedy.

Writing a play with so little dialogue is brave, and director Attridge rewards that courage with a clear understanding of Coyle's vision and a spot on delivery. Cozens and Burnett lead, with a heartwarming mix of awkwardness, fear and ultimately, hope, but all six actors bring something special to this piece. Not only does Whisper neatly tick all the challenge boxes, it's a delightful little vignette in its own right, and one which fondly stays with you afterwards.

Losing one player at the very last minute is tough - there's barely enough time for the actors to learn their own lines, let alone prepare understudies - but the company did an admirable job of soldiering on without Sarah Winn. McLean and Bourdillon in particular delivered excellent performances in Helix and Forest respectively.

Although some of the writing is disappointing, the acting and to an extent the direction do go some way to make up for this. And there can be no denying that Coyle has done the entire company proud with his writing, proving that whilst coming up with a brilliant play in 12 days is difficult, it's not an impossible feat. Silent may be my favourite genre showcased here, but if you like what The Pensive Federation are doing, don't feel the need to whisper about it. New writing, even when it needs a bit more fine-tuning, is always worth supporting.

The Collective Project: Genres opened on 10th November and runs until 14th November 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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