One Million Tiny Plays About Britain

Craig Taylor
Jermyn Street Theatre in association with The Watermill Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls Credit: Robert Workman

Are you one of those people who find themselves eavesdropping on bizarre conversations on the train or in the supermarket queue conversations? That is what these “tiny plays” are like. They first appeared as a weekly column in The Guardian, then as a book, which was followed by multiple stagings.

There are 95 plays in the book and this production, first seen at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, presents about thirty of them (I lost accurate count) and now brings them to the West End for Christmas.

Mainly duologues with a few solos, including a one-word vocabulary phone conversation typical of what’s overheard in real life, director Laura Keefe introduces each play with a voice-over announcing the type of location and where it is, perhaps with a sardonic comment about it. It may be in an Edinburgh office or McDonald’s in Swansea, a Whitstable restaurant or a York funfair, a King’s Lynn doctor’s, a Manchester hospital, a Somerset pub or a nightclub in Newcastle—it covers the country and all kinds of people.

Two actors play all the roles with ultra-quick costume changes during that voice-over and a snatch of music that leaves the stage littered with cast-off clothing as they take on a quite different look and turn into a very different character.

The performance starts off with a couple of mint-chewing theatre cloakroom attendants comparing what they found in celebrity customer’s pockets then offers a succession of scenes that feature all sorts of people from a lonely old lady and a Ukrainian immigrant to a couple of guys having a slash in the gents, father and daughter (dressed up for a dance class), a dad with a son who wants new football boots, a couple of builders (one of them far from the cliché).

I can’t tell you details without introducing spoilers but while most are amusing some introduce more painful subjects: suicide for instance and a mother’s refusal to accept her son’s boyfriend as part of the family.

By the interval, there is a risk of the format becoming too repetitive so back from the interval things become interactive with everyone eyes-down for a session of bingo that reinvigorates the subsequent action.

For this staging, designer Ceci Calf provides a tinselly setting, complete with Christmas tree, while lighting and sound (Sherry Coenen and Harry Linden Johnson) conjure more atmosphere and aid transitions.

Keefe gets fantastic performances from her actors, creating multiple characters, often crossing gender as they create instant personalities that, though emerging in a moment, can still suggest depth, watching their transitions all part of the pleasure. Craig Taylor’s tiny plays are carefully crafted but it is Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls who make them come alive and send us home happy.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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