One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 6th December 2019
“Nicholls and Barclay’s remarkably sensitive acting made these snapshots very powerful, for all their brevity”
As we file into the small Jermyn Street Theatre, the ushers tonight seem a little… extra. It all becomes clear as the performance starts and we see these same ushers ‘backstage’, rummaging through audience coat pockets for mints and sharing behind-the-scenes banalities. They’re the first of many characters, and the start of a roll call of modern Britishness via a quickfire series of vignettes.
The format here comes from writer Craig Taylor’s Guardian magazine columns and subsequent book, and originate from fractions of overheard conversations in the maelstrom of the capital. It’s not ever quite clear how much is fiction and how much verbatim; Taylor keeps this opaque. But we can certainly assume that there’s been some narrative help to some of the scenes – of which more below.
It takes exceptional acting to convincingly show us such a huge range of characters of all ages within two hours. Fortunately, Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls are more than equipped. Their adept handling of the wide span of accents required, for example, is astonishing; note-perfect even when switching rapidly between, in one case, Scouse and Manc. The sense of changing settings is also helped by, as so often at the Jermyn, top quality lighting (Sherry Coenen) and sound design (Harry Linden Johnson).
To the content, then, of our many little plays. Some of these flashbulbs of modern life are amazingly poignant, such as the ageing lady struggling to stay in her own home as tendrils of dementia wrap around her, and the gay guy hospitalised after a suicide attempt whose mum determinedly puts his actions as being down to the darker evenings. Nicholls and Barclay’s remarkably sensitive acting made these snapshots very powerful, for all their brevity.
There are flashes of incredible observations of Britishness too, such as the escalating passive aggression about who pays a cafe bill and the reserved sweetness of a mature widow describing the kiss at the end of her first date after bereavement (‘I’m not sure what it was, really’).
But some of these set pieces are more sophisticated than others, seeming to call up rather lazy stereotypes. There’s a builder looking at page 3 in a white van, and a gap yah millennial exchanging Bob Dylan vinyl because they’re into new stuff. These scenes tell us nothing new, and aren’t even much played for laughs, so fall a little flat when viewed against the more effective vignettes.
Some other elements work less well, too (although tellingly these are parts with less to do with the faultless performances of Nicholls and Barclay). The interludes between scenes, voiced by an unseen speaker, prove some of the weaker writing, with the asides actually adding little and actually proving an irritating distraction at times (‘Wolverhampton… never been’). And at times, moving scenes are undermined by a sudden pivot towards comedy, almost as if there’s an insistence towards this being a lighter night. The well-spoken couple having a torrid break-up in a west London restaurant are so acutely observed and acted as to make any of us who’ve survived dumpings pang in empathy (Barclay is especially sympathetic here, as the woman trying to retain her dignity), but the poignance of this scene is punctured by an unnecessary twist.
The biggest issue, though, is about what the series of vignettes can claim to represent. The title refers to Britain, and, with the location of each scene introduced, the geographic spread of the ‘little plays’ is made clear. We’re taken to Scotland (Edinburgh) once, and Swansea. We range from King’s Lynn to Newcastle, from Whitstable to Liverpool. But make no mistake: London scenes dominate here, and RP accents prevail. Given the diversity of today’s British population, not least in London, characters from outside the UK are inexplicably absent. More uneasily still, where they do crop up, it feels as though these characters are simply foils, shining a light on the ‘native’ character. The monosyllabic Ukrainian delivery man who a lonely spinster tries to nobble for a chat; the nurse with beads in her hair (‘maybe not in her culture’), referenced in passing; the honourable Eastern European builder who derides his British colleague’s casual sexism. In a production that does so well to hold a prism up to many strains of Britishness (an ailing NHS, an ageing and lonely population, disconnects between parents and their children), the absence of an attempt towards a truly rounded understanding of what Britain’s population looks like today disappoints.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Robert Workman
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
Jermyn Street Theatre until 11th January
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: