Bechdel Testing Life, The Bunker

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Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.
Women don’t always talk about men.

It bears repeating because it’s often forgotten, ignored or not believed. Popular culture is particularly deaf to the sentiment, and theatre still likes to rely on this inaccurate gender trope. Whilst this has been slowly changing for some time, particularly on the fringe, it’s still a problem.

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The Subterranean Season, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Jo Trainor

A calcification called Danny Dyer, porn, truffle oil and guitar guns – PLAY Theatre company are back at the VAULT Festival after winning the People’s Choice Award last year. The Subterranean Season comprises of four writer/director teams and ten actors putting on a series of short performances. Although each of the four plays are independent, and different in substance and style, the patchwork production doesn’t feel jarring or disconnected. The energy on stage and the skill of the writers make The Subterranean Season a cohesive performance.

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Bare Essentials, Amersham Arms

Encompass Productions produce theatre, film and a regular night of new writing, Bare Essentials. Rather than a scratch night, they aim to approach each micro-play with the same dedication as a full production, but with no budget. With plays accepted from all over the world, the current Bare Essentials has seven short plays ranging in style from naturalism to absurdity. The evening is a mixed bag with some scripts significantly better than others, but the performances are quite good. What made the whole evening hard to take had nothing to do with the production: the chosen venue, Amersham Arms in New Cross, isn’t fit for purpose and on the hottest day of the year in a tiny room with no air conditioning, it was a hugely uncomfortable experience that interfered with the enjoyment of the evening. I couldn’t wait to leave, and spent a large part of the evening trying not to be sick (I’m not good in the heat. At all.), which is a real shame because there were some inventive pieces of writing.

  1. CTL, ALT DELETE

This play is a frenetically paced, dystopian depiction of the film industry after the incorporation of robot writers. The robots aren’t pissed off though, because they’re robots. It’s the writers who are angry, and the cold, corporate producers just don’t get it until they have to face the consequences. Rachael Owens and Marcella Carelli are the money-grubbing producers unwilling to listen to writer Alex (David England); all three capture the desperate situation through rapid-fire dialogue and excellent timing. This play is only about five minutes long, but comfortably conveys the story. The idea could be developed into a longer piece, but this micro-play is a perfectly formed, self-contained piece by Dan Page.

  1. THE LEAVING OF THINGS

One of the best and my personal favourite, this play looks at internet suicide pacts, loneliness and hope. Though the dialogue is sometimes forced, performances by James Barbour and Alice Corrigan are some of the best I’ve seen on the fringe. This play could easily develop into a longer character driven one-act about the need for genuine human connection in our digital world. An excellent piece by Dean Moynihan.

  1. PANTHER

A West Country lad fails to understand his father’s affair and goes searching for a big cat in the darkness every night. This is an extended monologue with some character development, but relies on the regional stereotype of West Country equalling stupid or mentally deficient. Structurally, writer R. J. Thomson has a good piece, but doesn’t fully explore the character’s need to find the cat that killed his neighbour’s lamb, perpetuating the family feud that started with his father “tasting the neighbour’s chutney” on a nightly basis. The myths of big cats roaming free are touched on, but this is another area that deserves more time and could add a richer overlay of meaning onto what is currently quite a superficial script. There is room for development however, and this character piece could expand to a full cast and script.

  1. FEEDING TIME AT THE HUMAN HOUSE

Liz McMullen and Pip Barclay play zoo baboons puzzling over human nature and relationships. The physical depiction of their characters is excellent and wholly embodied, drawing attention to the more human traits of our ape cousins. Elements of comedy and poignancy make this view of mating rituals and pair bonding integrated and light-hearted, though if any longer, the idea would be excessively exhausted. As is, this is just the right length to explore writer David Wiener’s idea.

  1. THE NEWS

Lucy Foster’s script looks at three characters (Hannah Lawrence, Joe Bence and Jack Bence) coming to terms with a mutual friend Sarah’s drunken accident that she may not survive. The three dramatically different personalities pass the blame around as they struggle to cope with Sarah’s fall down the stairs and their own directionless lives. This microcosm presents the inner fear of giving up a creative career for a secure job only to find life has no meaning. Foster relies on contrasting stereotypes that are an unlikely group of friends and could do with more development, but if this were a longer play, it would be easy to address. The performances could also use more detail, but what was presented effectively communicated the play’s message.

  1. CONFESSIONS A DEUX

By Stephen Cooper, this one goes beyond the absurd to bizarre and the meaning of the piece isn’t clear on a wider level. Two priests (Graham Christopher and Josh Morter) have encountered a lonely parishioner with a fetish for priests and both have caved into their carnal desires. There is some good situation comedy and cleverly simple staging, but other than a specific comment on the sex lives of priests and their reciprocal confessions, this play has limited appeal and scope for development. This is the weakest one of the evening.

  1. NOTHING COULD SURPRISE ME NOW

Another example of absurdity, this is one of the better productions in Bare Essentials by Alain G. Cloarec. Turning narration and metatheatricality on its head, it is brief but wonderfully funny. Characters enter the room one by one having awoken this morning only able to speak in the third person, rather like Gregor Samsa but less traumatic. The “finale” then transcends the play, leading into a curtain call for the entire company. This is an excellent programming choice and some inventive directing by Michaela Frances Neal.

Overall, this is a varied evening of new writing, though even though the company claims it differs from a scratch night, it appears to have little difference. Scratch nights also approach their work with commitment, and are done on a shoestring in order to trial new writing. Though these pieces were quite polished, most need development. A more suitable space would improve the audience experience and establish a more professional, less scratch-night feel. As is, the room was small with no theatrical lights, white walls, and windows that are not blacked out. It was a room rather than a theatre and it is unclear why Encompass didn’t use the actual theatre downstairs, unless the reason is financial.

Scratch nights and short play showcases remain a good showcase for actors and writers, without the time commitment of a larger production (usually for no money) and the ability to present audiences with a range of styles and topics. Those with short attention spans and a wide range of interests will find this format particularly appealing. This one is has some quite good scripts and excellent performances but if the production company wants it to not feel like a scratch night, a more suitable venue must be chosen, and not just for air conditioning.


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Significant Other; Object of Affection, Tristan Bates Theatre

FullSizeRenderWhat do you get when you give ten playwrights, ten directors and twenty actors ten days to make some theatre? (This isn’t a Maths question.) You’ll have The Pensive Federation’s annual collection of ten, ten-minute plays, Significant Other. Inspired by modern relationships, The Pensive Federation celebrates the ups and downs of our human connections with this event. This year, each writer was given an object that had to be included in the scene and serves as the short plays’ titles. On the whole, they were funny, touching and well performed, especially considering the playwright had only five days to write the script and the director and actors had five days to rehearse them. One of the scenes was even a musical, with songs and choreography.

The relationships presented run the gamut from flatmates, sisters, straight couples, mates to co-workers. Whilst most of the plays dealt with romantic relationships, others confront familial complexities and troublesome colleagues. As it’s an issue commonly ignored in an industry that favours youth, Panties commands attention for being the sole play focusing on older characters. Here, a couple try to find the love and excitement in their relationship again now that their children are grown. All provided objects were completely random; some writers worked them into the plot more effectively than others did. My particular favourite was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Harrison Ford, absurdly fought over by a couple who both fancied him.

As for the scripts, some are certainly stronger than others. None of them are poor and some had potential to be brilliant. Of note, Blu-Ray (by Anna Forsyth), Shirt (by Joseph Lidster and composed by Griffinn Candey), Ring (by Leah Cowan) and Life-size Cardboard Cut-out (by Breman Rajkumar) have the most potential and can certainly stand up to further development. Direction is simple but effective in all plays, with minimal set used and a focus on characters and their relationships. Of the performances, though all are consistent, Catherine Nix-Collins and Jeremy Donovan particularly shone as best friends and flatmates in Blu-Ray, with Jeremy’s character about to move in with his boyfriend and Catherine’s coming to terms with him leaving. Anthony Couzens in Cash evoked pity with his washed up underground ticket seller who fancies his much younger colleague.

Singling out one of the plays as a favourite, or “best,” is impossible. Stylistically, most are initially grounded in reality with subject matter that the audience can relate to, even if on a basic level. Rather than being complete plays, most were snapshots of a larger issue and well-rounded characters. This really is an event that appeals to everyone: gay, straight, young, old, people with children, people who work, people who have friends and people who have families. The default was comedy rather than drama, with some excellent execution of comic timing and sensibility. Performances could become quite heightened, but the emotions matched. Despite the comedic bent, there was plenty of poignancy across the board as well. Including a focus on an object draws attention to the attachment we have to material goods, particularly when we associate them with someone we love, or hate, or otherwise feel strongly about. The only play where this idea could be more fully realised is Oil Can (by Giles Fernando) but the tension created between two former schoolmates is commendable.

This is an enjoyable evening in The Actors’ Centre Tristan Bates Theatre. Plenty of comedy and writing that couldn’t be fresher help ease the predictability of the format in an evening that could do with being a couple of plays shorter. The Pensive Federation clearly have a great instinct for discovering and showcasing new talent and will should develop some these micro-plays further.

Intention: ☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆


The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.