Review: One Million Tiny Plays about Britain (Watermill Theatre)

The stage adaptation of Craig Taylor’s weekly column in ”The Guardian” presents a collage of scenes about twenty-first century life

Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls in One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls in One Million Tiny Plays About Britain
© Robert Workman

Given its name, it was a logical step for Craig Taylor's weekly column in The Guardian to reach the stage. It takes Laura Keefe, a director with a vision, to reimagine these tiny snippets of overheard conversations by a huge cast of characters for just two actors. A pair of extraordinarily versatile chameleons, Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls begin morphing into successive pairs of interlocutors – young and old, male and female – from every background and every corner of the land, to the delight of the audience. The show premiered back in April 2016, just before the Brexit referendum dividing lines were drawn so starkly.

The return to the stage of this gentle, humane comedy of manners has a healing quality, possibly because of the change in landscape since 2016 – the Brexit word and the "where we are now?" quandary are less pertinent, and one of the play's arguments is even about Charles and Camilla rather than Harry and Megan. Any tensions and misunderstandings in the show are between partners on rocky marital roads, different generations of folk thrown together at work, or simply meeting momentarily across a shop counter. As the tiny plays rove around Britain, a brief visit to Belfast takes place in a record shop where the only bone of contention is the proprietor's disgust at a customer's ignorance about his vinyl – and his idol Bob Dylan. Like many of the scenes, this particular vignette ends mid-sentence, leaving the audience intrigued and wanting more. With each miniature play of varying lengths and moods, the overall pace plays a large part in this production's success.

Designer Ceci Calf's tackily glitzy bingo hall frames the audience and action, an atmosphere of inclusive fun. The numbers light up as a matey, sardonic voiceover calls up each scene, giving each location usually with an ironic comment. Sound designer Harry Linden Johnson orchestrates a selection of merry muzak for each scene change, including an ice-cream van chiming Greensleeves and a national anthem remix. This is the cue for the delicious double act of Barclay and Nicholls to rip off layer after layer of costume, perhaps add a wig and a couple of props, while simultaneously sashaying across the stage and moving the furniture to conjure up the next location. Of course, they have it down to a fine art, though the fun is in their apparently breathless haste.

Even urine becomes a prop artfully used in the storytelling. An overworked doctor has to ask her patient whether he can identify his own sample from the pair on her desk. A pair of football fans dissects the match while at a pair of urinals. Another post-match scene provides one of the many opportunities for the duo to explore parent and child relationships. To the dad's horror, Beckham is just an "old-time footballer" to a budding young footballer, more intent on practising his goal celebration moves than his match technique.

Among all the fun, it's the telling moments that remain. The widow tentatively starting to date again meets her daughter to report back on a disastrous first attempt, evoking her husband as she wistfully remembers the sound of his voice. A woman slipping into dementia repeatedly apologises to a care worker for not offering him tea, even though their drained empty cups are on the table.

And as the country is dealing with the ramifications of exiting the European Union, an early scene in this show takes on a special significance. An older woman – living alone – converses the Ukrainian man earning his crust by flyering for the local pizzeria. She just wants the company, the conversation for as long as possible; he is smiling, eager to please, trying hard to understand and make himself understood. A metaphor for our times, it adds to the delight that this original, inclusive and life-enhancing show brings in its timely revival.