If you pieced a play together out of overheard snippets of British conversation – what picture of our country would emerge?
Would you witness the peaceful co-existence of diverse age groups, cultures and politics – or something very different?
And could such a broad undertaking be pulled off in just over an hour…by just two actors?
These are the questions The Watermill Theatre in Bagnor, Newbury is asking with playwright Craig Taylor’s acclaimed work, “One Million Tiny Plays About Britain”.
Taylor built a collection of short sketches out of the conversations he heard around Britain – in the pub, at a funfair, down the park, outside someone’s home. The whole country is packed into them – young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, happy and sad.
The title is of course a misnomer (clearly there aren’t a million plays here) but with 95 sketches making up the script, theatre groups are free to mix and match a hugely diverse range of pieces into their very own patchwork quilt tour of the country.
Portraying everyone in the UK is no mean feat, but cast members Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls (who some may recognise from The Crown) do a bloody amazing job of it. Widowed wives one moment and tutu-wearing children the next, their ability to convincingly change genders, age groups and accents at the drop of a hat is staggering – and emphasises the extent to which simple items of clothing influence the way British people perceive each other.
It’s a brilliantly acted showcase of sketches – but you may be wondering whether an evening of (very) short plays can sustain interest and stir emotions in the same was a “traditional” play can?
The answer is a resounding “yes”.
Because much like those intriguing things you hear on a bus (“Your Dad got attacked by that pigeon again this afternoon” being a personal favourite) – these are glimpses into British life that grab your attention and don’t let go.
A couple sit down to dinner – “Did you do it with her while I was in the house?”
A woman’s talking on the phone – “It wasn’t in her mouth THAT long. And who knows what HE got up to in Edinburgh?!”
Come on…you know you want to eavesdrop.
And – because they last for such a short amount of time – you don’t have a chance to get bored. Not enjoying this sketch? Never mind, we’ve already flicked over to something else. I’ll let you discover the ingenious method employed to take us from one scene to the next…
True, not every sketch has a resolution – sometimes we just witness a brief exchange, cutting away before we see the consequences of a revelation (“So now I’ve told you. Can you live with someone who’s a manic depressive?”).
But of course, in real life things don’t always get tied up neatly after two hours. By honoring that, this is possibly the most realistic kind of theatre I’ve ever seen – and the most beautiful. Without the pressing need to seek a resolution, the play throws the spotlight onto the affecting words people use, those “bright flares of language” from our diverse cultural heritage, and the impressions they have on us.
One of the most striking plays in here consists entirely of the word “Yes” spoken over and over again by a woman on the phone – the story emerges purely from the different ways it’s said, and the expressions on the actor’s face as it’s said.
And like life, some moments are routine, some moments are painful – and some are the diamonds we spend our whole lives waiting for.
“One Million Tiny Plays About Britain” is one such moment, and I urge you to see it before it closes on the 15th February. Tickets are available at the box office on 01635 46044 or at https://www.watermill.org.uk/one_million_tiny_plays_about_britain#home-ttab.