FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Laura Keefe, with Set and Costume Design by Ceci Calf, Lighting Design by Sherry Coenen, and Sound Design by Harry Linden Johnson. Till January 11th 2020.
It’s not just a Bingo pre-set, we’re actually taught how to play Bingo after the interval: several of us need to learn. But it’s Christmas wings, not any cruel dramas set with Bingo ones that surround each opening to these miniature playlets, some lasting a few seconds.
There’s a reason too: an apparently random selection from a smorgasbord of short plays; though there’s nothing random about their arrangement.
In Craig Taylor’s One Million Tiny Plays About Britain nothing too dramatic happens but you realize you’re at an odd angle to the universe. Whether upbeat, offbeat or downbeat, these fillets shiver with briefly examined life, and glow with sad affirmation.
Taylor’s original book drawn from his Guardian column is one of several solo-observed collections of overhearing, which isn’t quite the same as eavesdropping. Taylor allows actor and director air to create a differently-sorted universe each time. Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls – who returns from the original run – swap roles, clothes and gender in about 26 filaments that light up and with the Bingo lighting coming up, vanish.
A co-production with Watermill Theatre where it premiered, it’s again directed at Jermyn Street by Laura Keefe, with set and costume design by Ceci Calf – there’s all sorts of changes with actors pulling out costumes as much as putting them on. The intimate lighting design by Sherry Coenen includes that Bingo chart, and the merry and various sound design by Harry Linden Johnson which just etches the world round the two actors.
We open and close with co-workers: the first are theatre/cinema attendants who move from pre-set to discussing what they find in patrons’ pockets. In Diana Rigg’s there’s a half-eaten chocolate. Finders keepers though. In the last two park attendants discuss the ethics of snaffling unopened Budweisers, and whether anything’s contaminated. They’re clearing up after one drunk girl has just stumbled off from a night’s puke. Even empties get one of them considering the provenance. A future Beckham? A football-mad son earlier asked his father who this Beckham was. With such delicate connections as well as the symmetry presented here this production buzzes. To that mute inglorious future-Beckham-discarded item being recalled Barclay’s character ripostes: ‘You remember every packet of crisps you’ve eaten, then?’
Barclay has a line in agonized working class women and discomfited middle-class ones. From the complacency of one couple peering into an estate agent’s window revealing everything about their world-view to a woman discovering her oyster-gulping husband’s leaving her for the Ukrainian au pair who’s pregnant with his child (only DNA proves it’s not his friend’s child too); or a gently appalled daughter probing her mother’s post-bereavement date where the fox-hunting hopeful loos towards her in the last line ‘with korma on his moustache’. Nicholls with earrings is, like the korma, to scream for.
Nicholls does vulnerable well too, that father helping his son tie his football boots, he realises the chasm yawning over who Beckham is and much else. Barclay and Nicholls score uproariously as two sports fans with two bottles as genitalia towards the audience as a collective urinal and a surprise. Their exchanges are charged with that unconscious homoeroticism male bonding confers on some of the most laddish people.
The oyster bar breakup, that mother-daughter exchange and oe or two others punctuate the lighter fare, and there’s stark injustice wrapped in tragedy. A seemingly dying Catholic son (Nicholls) is fobbed off by Barclay, a mother who’s refusing to let him see his partner Stephen, who clearly doesn’t know where he is. It’s a cruelly exposed slice of homophobia and power – the son helpless, cut off – that reminds us of some medieval incarceration with NHS tubing.
Barclay and Nicholls are consummate, blissful chameleons, and affecting. Taylor’s is a consummate, heartwarming, sometimes heartrending look through the letterboxes of peoples’ souls. The flashed iterations of love and prejudice, duplicity and sudden generous acts flit by to tell you something about yourself, even as you mark off a number with a crayon before settling into a cheerfully uneasy recognition. Do see it.