Last year marked the Pensive Federation’s venture into full length plays and took its Significant Other Festival out of London to Oldham last May. Shaking things up even further, the Pen Fen have moved (at least on this occasion) from the Tristan Bates Theatre in the West End and taken residency at the Vaults, Waterloo with greater seat capacity. This Spring’s Significant Other Festival has 11 different short plays, all looking at relationships, using meteorlogical labels (*Conditions) as metaphors for their content. In a break from tradition, before the plays truly begin in earnest, all the cast are on stage in character, enjoying the ‘arborial’ surroundings to the strains of an instrumental version of the festival’s closing song. But more of that later…
Taking the familiar scenario of a misunderstanding between a couple. Anthony Cozens’ Humid begins with Izzy (Olivia Negrean) berating Miles (Michael Shon) for killing a goldfish, a result of shaking the bag it was in ‘too vigorously’. Encountering Izzy’s friend Hannah (Katherine Jee), Miles is on the backfoot as his strange, yet true explanation for his actions falls on deaf ears. His situation is neither helped by Hannah’s comments, who keeps on referring to him openly as “Bell-end”! Will he win either of them over…?
Olu Alakija’s Flurry, the second play of the festival, takes a very different tact as Karen (Virginia Lee), Sam (Leanne May Bennett) and Jen (Ashleigh Cheadle) visit an outside site at 3am – to move a body that was placed there years earlier. Pragmatic and collected, Jen feels it’s prudent to move the body of the perpetrator as the recent building and excavation near the campus are bound to unearth the evidence… Karen is hysterically on edge with Sam doing her level best to calm her.
Jen, in frustration, tells them given the circumstances, she would kill the man again in a heartbeat. Reading in between the lines, the deceased was a member of the university faculty who preyed on female undergraduates – somethng that was ignored by the powers-that-be. Of course Jen’s admission freaks out both Sam and Karen, worried they are accessories to first-degree murder… Some of the festival’s plays lend themselves to further development and expansion, and this is the first play that falls within this criteria.
The tension that occur with ménage à trois scenarios crop up time and again in the festival under different guises. Within Emma Allison’s Inclement, the third play of the festival, the tensions are a natural by-product of arranging a wedding reception. The troika making the decisions? Mark (John Rayment) the bride’s father, Nina (Rekha John-Cheriyan) his present/second wife and Linda (Pat Garrett) the bride’s mother. As the event is taking place on Nina’s property, she naturally has a vested interest in how things are arranged and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. As for Mark, whatever he does, he can’t ‘win’…
Set perhaps in the same ‘universe’ as Inclement, Lydia Rynne’s Tornado finds three individuals sitting outside at a wedding reception. Supposedly unable to find their way back out of the maze, they relate how they know the wedding party and their own respective views on romance. While Kyler (Kate Tulloch) has her own amusing anecdote about how she knows the bride, Adrian (Nick Pearse) admits to being a ‘serial best man’.
After an intense six-month relationship with the groom-to-be, he fulfil his duties and moves on to the next friend (an interesting subversion of men’s relationships and wedding rituals I thought)! Nathan (Roberto Landi) a younger man who is sitting nearby has a different perspective on weddings and romance, but he has his own reasons to feel jaded…
Staying on the subject of close male relationships, Alexander Williams’ Gust sees Gail (Elizabeth Guterbock) trying to help Steve (Anthony Cozens) take his mind of Robin (Kamran Vahabi) a mutual ‘acquaintance’ who used to live with them. Gail is angry – firstly for herself as Robin betrayed her trust and went through her private things at home. On a more altrustic front she’s angry for Steve’s sake, as Robin broke his heart. There is a reconciliation between the men, but Gail is understandably distrustful of this. If Robin can treat them badly once, he can do so again…
Continuing on the subject of trust (or lack of…) Rob Greens’ Overcast sees two young women Becca (Christi Van Clarke) and Angie (Hanna Lucas) spying on someone they know through binoculars. This for them is quite retro, as they as they’re more used to using social media to achieve this, with Becca in particular having a penchant for using fake identities.
She reveals to Warren (Jamie Coleman), her ‘target’ that she is the real person he has been ‘corresponding’ with – a revelation in the play, but also a source of some embarassment for Warren. Putting the narrative into context though, had it been a male character doing the same things, Becca’s actions wouldn’t have seem so benign at all… Context is everything.
L-R: Evelyn Lockley, Luke Lampard and Flora Ogilvy
Brother and sister relationships aren’t always explored in new writing nowadays, but the second half of this Significant Other festival had three noticeable examples. The first (Reece Connolly’s Thaw) has Colin (Luke Lampard) roping his girlfriend Jenny (Evelyn Lockley) into burying a dead goldfish in the middle of the night (what is it this proclivity with burying things and dead goldfish? 😉 The reason for this unorthodox task – Colin’s sister Abs (Flora Ogilvy), who is slightly unhinged and liable to react VERY badly as a result of her pet dying. As it happens, Abs appreciates the burial gesture and the ladies get on like a house on fire. They also prove that when it comes to swearing, they are just as funny and cool as their male counterparts, if not more so!
Sylvia Arthur’s Haze, the second siblings play, has a thread of black humour running through it, but utimately it’s a more serious affair. Following the death of their mother, siblings Shelley (Laila Alj), Sonny (Alex Dowding) and Sydney (Laura McGrady) find a photo that puts a completely different complexion on their mother’s character. In bed with a man who isn’t their father – a “fascist” according to Sonny – the picture of their mother poses any number of questions. However, foremost on Sydney and Sonny’s mind is their mother’s legacy – who will take over “the Movement”? It’s up to Shelley to put things into persective for them, since a) who is their real father (or should that be Sydney and Sonny’s..?) and b) the scandal resulting from this news would have long-term repercussions. Haze has a lot of potential and I’m intrigued how the story would end, given more time for development.
Female solidarity and divison also makes it mark in Brian Eley’s Cold Front. Beginning with three young women enjoying life living in London, further information reveals that their living arrangements are far from equitable. While Becks (Rachael Oliver) is paying full rent, Squidge (Rachel Smart) has intermittent work so she pays as and when she can. Meanwhile Jess (Katherine Rodden) who has recently moved has a full-time job… And she’s sleeping on the sofa.
The euphoria from the beginning soon evaporates when Becks says there are going to be some changes in light of recent developments. Jess will move in Becks’ room, Becks will move in Squidge’s room and Squidge… it’s up to her whether she stays on the sofa or move on… I have to admit, when the play began I thought there wasn’t anything for it to progress to. However, it is precisely because of the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ beginning that gives the latter half of the play its clout.
Closing the festival, Sunny Spells – which was written by Frances Bushe and composed by Lemon and Franner Otter – looks at an unusual subject matter for a ‘musical’ – the caring of an elderly relative. Performed initially by Antonia Bourdillon, Clark Alexander and Sydney Aldridge, the rest of the cast joins in for the finale, which even as Pen Fed events go, is special. Tonally, the philosopical/upbeat message is in the same key as Avenue Q‘s finale For Now, but also has the liberal expletives that Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater are fond of, such as in their song Totally F***ed (for the 2006 version of Spring Awakening).
The Pen Fed’s Significant Other Festival has come of age.
© Michael Davis 2017
Conditions: Significant Other Festival 2017, The Vaults ran from 14th-18th March 2017.