Julian Eaves reviews One Million Tiny Plays About Britain now playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London.
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
Jermyn Street Theatre, London
This is a splendid revival of Craig Taylor’s glorified sketch show: a compendium of nearly a hundred very short playlets – some running to a good few minutes, other barely seconds long – that is a virtuoso showcase for two talented actors, who play all the parts, switching in a heartbeat ages, genders, social classes, and so on, between each glimpse of some moment in ordinary but quirky lives. The plays, especially in the first half, are mainly brief comic turns much in the manner of ‘The Fast Show’ or ‘Victoria Wood… As Seen on TV’; however, after the interval, things take a decidedly darker turn, with some fascinatingly cogent and compelling writing that delves into the tragic-comic lives of Brits today. Given a loose framing device of bingo calling, the set is awash with festive crimson and it makes for an apt alternative to seasonal panto fare.
Of the two performers, relative newcomer Emma Barclay immediately distinguishes herself as a powerful new talent, from whom we will be hearing and seeing much. Her face is remarkably expressive, and she captures each new character with electrifying precision, forging each separate persona with a huge input of energy: her part is more generously written than the male role – she gets to play children and the elderly and to serenade the audience with a banjo. The other player, Alec Nicholls, has a harder job of it, with roles that regularly function more as support to the other: yet, he stands out gloriously in the second act’s longest most serious creation – that of a fairly recent widow grappling with her first ‘date’, and – in a brilliantly theatrical episode – also finds a couple of dozen different ways of saying ‘Yes’.
Keeping all this on track is the masterful direction of another talent of enormous promise, director Laura Keefe, who, having assisted with the best of them, is now carving out a career of great variety and depth of quality in well-chosen and well-respected fringe, off-west-end and provincial houses. Having originated this production at the Watermill, she now brings it to a London yuletide residency in the West End’s favourite fringe venue, and it is a perfectly judged counter-balance to conventional holiday entertainments. She has fun with moving between the flippantly jokey, the naturalistically Ayckbournesque, the intensely fraught and even the movingly poignant, while also showing off with a 2nd act opener featuring lots of ‘bonding’ audience participation.
Keefe’s designer on the project – one of a deliciously brilliant team – is Ceci Calf. An extremely recent arrival in the industry (graduating just last year), Calf knocks one for six here with a flamboyant and confident design that plays with scale, levels and proportion to maximise the impact of the snug stage. The use of balance and rhythm in the design is first-class, making virtues of all aspects of the Jermyn Street’s characteristic properties: the layering is also carried over into the costumes piled up on the two actors, who must nip in and out of changes between every ‘play’ with bewildering speed, adroitly deploying scenery modifications and use of props to establish each new ‘setting’. Above all, the design concept is drenched in a palette of rich reds, admonished with some glittering gold, reinforcing the Christmasy mood.
Sherry Coenen’s lighting and Harry Linden Johnson’s sound work in perfect tandem to punctuate the changes between the plays, creating a strong architectural framework to hold up the often apparently trivial material. Not for nothing has Taylor’s work, since its first appearance a decade ago, spread its wings far and wide across the globe. There is something of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From A Small Island’ about it, but there is more shade and pathos here mixed in with the glitz and gaiety. Serve with mulled wine and mince pies for a heart-warming yuletide treat.
Until 11 January 2020