REVIEW: The Significant Other Festival: Conditions (The Vaults) ★★★★

The Significant Other Festival

‘Significant Other’ is a now-familiar clunky term usually signifying one’s ‘better half’. Exploring this as a theme in its sixth year the Pensive Federation’s “Significant Other Festival” presents a very specific challenge to those involved. The schedule is intense: ten writers, ten days, to produce ten ten-minute plays.

This year the festival is a sort of ‘Baker’s Decalogue’ of not ten but eleven plays, involving thirty-three actors. Each writer is allocated a title from an envelope and a list of shared props to incorporate: I spotted binoculars, map, tape measure, badminton set, grave and spade, and Wall’s Viennetta.

Given the sometimes glacial timescales of commercial theatre production, it’s inspiring that the Pensive Federation has succeeded in making this happen in just ten days. Direction is strong and there are great lines throughout. I cherish in particular “I picked up an overweight labrador” (JFW Nutt), “You know. I was polyamorous in the jungle” (Frances Bushe), and “Right then. Let’s go and bury this fucking fish” (Reece Connolly).

The frenzied circumstances of creation unite the plays in a common purpose and a shared meaning. The evening proceeds at a sprightly pace, no one play outstaying its welcome. It’s a great format: if you don’t like one play, you might like the next.

The plays obey a prevailing naturalism but are a naturally varied bunch. “Humid” by Anthony Cozens pits best friend against bellend boyfriend with a dead fish in tow. Olu Alakija’s “Flurry” is an atmospheric problem play mistily wrapped around the murderous conceit that “sometimes the wrong thing is the right thing to do.”

Reece Connolly’s “Thaw” is a dipsomaniac black comedy that finds a new way to bury an old fish. Brian Eley’s “Cold Front” is an ebullient teen pyjama party of three girls (”strawberry, vanilla and chocolate chip cookie!”) with vibrant physical direction from Dilek Latif.

“Gust” by Alexander Williams is a poignant drama of verbal shuttlecocks ruining a game of badminton. “Overcast” by Rob Greens is a polymorphously perverse infidelity drama cum sex-comedy with a gross-out appeal and a seamy aftertaste.

“Inclement” by Emma Allison is a barbed but tender social comedy of middle-class pretensions organising a wedding. Lydia Rynne’s “Tornado” revisits this wedding with the bittersweet comedy of an accidental blind date of a pair lost in a maze with a dumped waiter.

“Drought” by JFW Nutt wittily unpicks the social dynamics of envy with strong verbal and visual puns. Sylvia Arthur’s family drama “Haze” takes not a wedding but a funeral as its scene: “Sometimes life happens and it overtakes you.” This point is taken up with great piquancy by the final play.

Frances Bushe’s “Sunny Spells” is a moving and brilliantly conceived musical about the quandary of putting your old ma or da into a nursing home. It manages to cram three epic tunes into ten minutes, closing the evening on a poignant note of ageing and failure. The piano starts and they burst into song: “I found myself!” is answered in harmony, “We didn’t know you were missing!” Composers Lemon Otter and Franner Otter make melodic an ironically humorous chorus of “nursing home/ dentures/ incontinence/ round the clock care.”

All thirty-three of the actors appear in plastic panchos and lend lungs and audience handclaps to the final chorus “We need to fuck it up!” In life, we find and lose our Significant Others, we get married and divorce, we age, we die or are murdered: do we not deserve a good sing-song and a little bit of getting fucked up?

Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Photo: The Pensive Federation