Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review: 'One Million Tiny Plays About Britain', at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 17th December 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

After taking a month off to campaign for Labour in the General Election (for all the good it did...) I'm back at the theatre. The first play I'm seeing in this terrifying and depressing new world is One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. The material arises from Craig Taylor, who began collecting overheard conversations that were eventually published The Guardian's magazine, collected in book form and now put on stage.

The play is a mosaic formed of the lives of everyday people from across the United Kingdom, all played by actors Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls. Among others, we spend a few minutes with a woman on the phone outside her Holborn office block, witness inter-office tensions in Edinburgh, watch two men struggling to piss in a London pub or a father and daughter sneaking into first class on the train to Wolverhampton.

The backdrop for this appears to have been imported directly from a working men's club: slightly tatty and chintzy Christmas decorations, battered pub furniture and a very old television. This fits neatly with the warm and fuzzy tone: while the play might not be explicitly Christmassy it certainly doesn't do anything to ruin your sense of goodwill to all men.

Thing is, I don't have goodwill to all men. I actually have bad will towards quite a lot of men right now. I've spent the last month engaged in futile doorstep conversation with people from all walks of life: ranging a homeless guy with "literally nothing" on the streets of Soho to a woman who peered around the door of her Kensington Mansion wearing a jewelled necklace that looked like something a Batman villain would steal. 

All that and last Thursday meant that I am sick to the back teeth of hearing what the average person on the street has to say, because recent empirical evidence indicates that the 'average person on the street' is an arsehole.

I know I can't reasonably lay that at the door of One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, but let's just say that its sentimental sweetness would have gone down a hell of a lot easier if I'd have seen it a week ago.

On top of that, the piecemeal structure means there's no thematic through-line in the play. This means it ends up as a cosy, Readers-Digest-style reflection of the way things are. While I guess there are some smiles to be found in regurgitating reality on stage with a wry smile and a woolly jumper, it feels like the kind of thing you'd see in Reader's Digest or on at mid-afternoon on a Thursday on Radio 4. The closest the play comes is conveying some universal Britishness that spans across ages, classes and geography - but even if the play inadvertently identifies this it doesn't go on to do anything with it.

As it stands, while I appreciate the talent that Barclay and Nicholls display when performing their many, many characters, and while I am generally a fan of writing about small-scale personal experiences, this play simply didn't land with me. The wrong play at the wrong time. Maybe your mileage will vary,

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 11th January 2020. Tickets here.

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