Watermill Theatre - One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
29th January to 15th February 2020.
Review from Newbury Theatre.
Craig Taylor’s play returns to the Watermill with the same cast as in 2016 and after a recent stay at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London. Not a million, but over 30 scenes ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls have honed it to perfection in a huge gender fluid range of ages and accents, comedy mixed with pathos. Each scene is introduced by an unseen bingo caller who adds sarky comments as the actors spring into position.
The Canadian author has perfectly captured the Britishness of it all, and the variety of the scenes keeps the interest up throughout. Standout scenes include the confused elderly lady in Richmond with a carer; two old ladies squabbling over who pays the bill in a Lichfield tea room; the girl with her dad on a Henley park bench, worried about the CCTV cameras; football supporters in the loo; and the quite surreal mother and daughter scene in a Russell Square pub. All this plus a game of bingo that the whole audience joins in at the start of the second half.
Often funny, often moving, sometimes dark, sometimes confusing, this is very different from your ‘normal’ play or musical. It’s a short run at the Watermill, so catch it while you can.
Review from The Times (behind pay wall).
The effect is like sitting on the top deck of a bus and eavesdropping on the random conversations, loud and quiet, floating all around. (Minus, of course, the maddening noise of people watching videos on their phones with no earphones.) The Canadian playwright Craig Taylor calls his creation “open source theatre”. The fragments of dialogue he has assembled and manipulated into a semi-coherent whole are a literary form of that populist institution mass-observation.
The pieces first appeared in book form in 2009, and this stage version, nimbly directed by Laura Keefe, first ran at the Watermill in 2016. Which was, as we all know, the year of the EU referendum, a topic that is absent from the script. Politics as a whole is pretty much missing. This is a pocket-sized portrait of Britain — well, England mainly — that is gently humorous, sometimes anodyne and often vaguely reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s much-loved monologues.
One important difference, though, is that Taylor seldom allows himself the time to dig deeper than an affectionate caricature — some of the scenes last barely a minute. Metaphorically speaking, these Britons tend to wear bright Benetton colours; few are turned out in shades of grey. Multicultural Britain is largely passed over too. There is a very brief scene in an asylum seekers’ reception centre, but no asylum seeker actually gets to speak.
What holds the evening together are the cheerfully inventive performances of Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls, who strip off layers of clothing between scenes, swap genders and generally act as cheerful masters of ceremony. The lucky-dip format is framed as a game of bingo, with a board of numbers displayed at the rear of Ceci Calf’s knowingly kitsch set (shades of Peter Kay) and a mischievous, invisible host calling out the random figures. There’s even a quick audience session of the game just after the interval, with the traditional call of “two fat ladies”. Barclay also pads out proceedings with a disposable song, accompanying herself on ukulele.
If the first half rattles through a middling selection of characters, there is more depth to the second half. Two football fans standing in a gents’ toilet add a layer of bawdiness as well as clever use of props, while two young women recuperating outside a nightclub blend ladette swagger with a touching hint of vulnerability. The most Bennett-like exchange comes when Nicholls, as a middle-aged mother, tells her daughter about a comically disastrous date. A longer scene at the end, in which two council employees clear litter while talking across each other, has all the artfulness of a fragment from Beckett. There’s real potential here.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Drama of life's minutiae
Craig Taylor's humorous and poignant look at modern Britain
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until February 15
Craig Taylor's warm-hearted series of vignettes, One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, makes a welcome return to The Watermill theatre following its premiere in 2016 and a highly successful run at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London.
It lovingly captures the state of the nation garnered from overheard conversations reflecting people's lives.
The audience experience their hopes, disasters, loneliness and triumphs.
Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls skilfully play all the parts in this fast-paced kaleidoscope of sketches with aplomb.
Switching genders with ease, they wear all the costumes they need, stripping the clothes off one by one, donning wigs to create their characters and you simply had to admire their dexterity.
As we enter the auditorium, we are greeted by two ushers who delight in searching through the pockets of the coats in the cloakroom to discover what's there.
The scenes are linked through an unseen narrator informing us where the action is taking place and a large illuminated bingo board and glitter curtains designed by Ceci Calf.
There is so much to enjoy in this eclectic production, from skits about care in the community to asylum seekers and a couple looking in an estate agent's window trying to find out if they could get a reduction in price if a murder had been committed in the house.
An old lady seeks the company of a Ukrainian man who has just delivered a restaurant flyer through her letterbox.
A young girl becomes paranoid about CCTV surveillance cameras declaring "But who are they protecting us from?"
After the Interval there is some audience participation as we all play a game of old-fashioned bingo and it's great fun.
Some of the scenes last a few minutes told with tremendous humour and comic timing.
The sketch with Nicholls dressed as a woman on a mobile phone finding dozen of ways to just say "Yes" is hilarious.
Others are much longer and in places a little darker, such as the father helping his son with his football boots and realising that they are drifting apart.
The characters are wonderfully observed and the actors are impressive, using a myriad of accents and facial expressions.
Deftly directed by Laura Keefe this is a highly entertaining and thought provoking production.
There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("pair of extraordinarily versatile chameleons... original, inclusive and life-enhancing" - ★★★★), Henley Standard ("breathtakingly well performed and wonderfully entertaining... brilliant acting skills and lightning costume changes the likes of which you will never have seen before... a tour de force that offers magnificent entertainment value"), PocketSizeTheatre ("we can admire the actors' versatility... but I wanted the comedy to be sharper, the linkages to be clearer and a better sense of purpose to deliver a bigger punch about society today - ★★★", WokinghamToday ("a brilliantly acted showcase of sketches... possibly the most realistic kind of theatre I’ve ever seen – and the most beautiful... I urge you to see it")).
The following reviews were for the Jermyn Street production from 4th December 2019 to 11th January 2020.
Review from The Guardian.
Listening doesn’t seem to be in fashion these days. Shouting? Yes. But really listening to a different point of view? Not so much. Craig Taylor’s series of sketches, which originally appeared in the Guardian, feel like a welcome antidote to all the noise and fury. Some scenes are just a few seconds long but they are insightful, funny and encompass a huge range of characters across the country. It is a pleasure to sit with them for a while.
The show originally appeared at the Watermill theatre in 2016 and, for this latest stage outing, Ceci Calf’s set has gone all Christmassy. There are tinsel stars, a tinsel tree and tinsel trimmings; the full festive works. There’s also a big bingo board on the back wall, which frames the show both visually and structurally. As the numbers are called, a voiceover artist sets the scene – with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. Admittedly, the shtick begins to wear a little thin, but it’s a tidy way to pull the show together.
Actors Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls make things light, focused and occasionally surprisingly moving. They wear all their costumes in one go and then, with each new sketch, strip off their layers to reveal other characters hidden inside. There’s a gentle mayhem to Laura Keefe’s production, which has been tightly choreographed yet still feels loose and relaxed. As the actors cobble together yet another scene, grabbing at seemingly random props, they laugh with the audience, always careful to let us in on the joke.
The very best skits look indirectly but with real pertinence at some of the country’s most pressing issues, including the strained NHS, the housing crisis and loneliness among an ageing population. In one very clever and very funny scene, a kid freaks out about the CCTV cameras watching her from every angle (“But who are they protecting us from?”). Meanwhile, over in Richmond, an elderly woman with early signs of dementia chats anxiously with a health visitor. “I’m in care in the community,” says the health visitor, and you can only hope he’s telling the truth.
There are reviews from The Stage ("series of tiny playlets about the nation that bring often overlooked voices to the fore" - ★★★), British Theatre ("fascinatingly cogent and compelling writing that delves into the tragic-comic lives of Brits today" - ★★★★), Broadway World ("joyous and lighthearted... one wishes it would never end" - ★★★★), British Theatre Guide ("fantastic performances").
The following review was for the original Watermill production from 12th to 23rd April 2016.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Snapshots of British life
The Watermill's 30 little plays in one, touring villages near you
One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Tuesday, April 12, to Saturday, April 23
Whether you get tickets at the theatre or go to one of the tour venues listed on the Watermill's website, don't miss the chance to see this extraordinarily perceptive look at the folk who inhabit Great Britain.
Based on overheard conversations and, I suspect, people known to writer Craig Taylor, actors Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls throw themselves into performing no less than 30 plays. Progress is marked by a bingo board lighting up a number, whereupon the actors freeze and a voice announces the next scenario. Instantly and incredibly fast the two transform themselves into new characters, flinging unwanted clothing and props aside, occasionally changing gender, too.
The action takes place in places all over the country and storylines vary from hilarious to poignant. There's the couple who study police reports to find a house where a murder has taken place so that it would be cheap, the little girl worried about security cameras, the mother (Alec Nicholls) who has just been on a first date ("I've never met someone who talked so much about ring roads"), the overworked GP asking her patient if he recognised his own urine from two sample bottles on her desk, conversations on building sites, restaurants, quayside, a park, and even a gents' urinal which had the two characters 'having a bit of trouble' as Frank Spencer would say – the audience clapped when this was overcome!
In spite of all the humour, it is a moving play which stays foremost in my mind. Emma Barclay as the pink hairnetted elderly lady being interviewed to discover if she is fit to live alone. Completely confused as to whether she is in a hotel room or her home and whether she has given the interviewer tea, part of her mind is nevertheless desperately, heartbreakingly clinging to sanity as she says: "This is the home I'm going to stay in."
After the interval, the mood frequently deepened in this clever, slick performance from the two actors who brought their characters to life as people we all know.
Directed by Laura Keefe, with design by Fly Davis, One Million Tiny Plays About Britain takes the audience on a journey that is unusual, compelling, alternately funny and moving, but always entertaining.