“Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. Or experimental, or poignant or thought-provoking.” A very true sentence but unfortunately Natasha Tripney was not describing me but was in fact talking about the Miniaturists which lays claim to being “London’s premier short play night, with a line-up of new short plays from some of the most exciting voices writing for stage today.” Well, last night I went along to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston for Miniaturists 54 our 10th Birthday Bash to see if this claim was true and I have to say I was pretty impressed by what was on show.
The first play was Twins by James Fritz. At a simple table are sat two ladies (Simona Bitmate and Phyllis McMahon). They are separated by age, Simona being a good deal younger than Phyllis but linked by something far more complex. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes or so, the two ladies consult a chart and a photo album and simultaneously narrate their life. I will be honest and say that despite the title and the old ladies comment that she was actually born as a twin and that her older sister didn’t survive, it took me a few minutes to realise exactly what I was watching but, once that penny finally dropped, I was completely enthralled hearing the story of these two ladies’ time on earth. This was a superb piece of writing that conveyed the beauty and cruelty of life in a wonderful and completely non-sentimental way. A fabulous example of a short play at its best.
Next up, we were off to the rooftops of Ireland for John O’Donovan’s If we Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I love You. It’s Halloween and two friends – Mikey Shannon (Sean Fox) and Casey Brennan (Mark Conway) want to go out on the town for the night. Unfortunately, they have no money and so decided to help themselves to other people’s property by robbing their houses whilst they are out. Just as they seem to have hit the big one – £300 in cash – it looks like they are going to be discovered so they head to the roof to hide out until the coast is clear. Despite the frantic nature of the play, the writing is very gentle and the story unfolds at a nice relaxed pace as we get to know more about the two boys stuck on that roof and their relationship with the friends, families and each other. In a lovely piece of wiring and acting, we get to realise that these relationships that don’t necessarily work side by side for Casey, as he has to match the highly conflicting priorities of what he would like in life and what is expected of him.
Ending the first half was Poppy Corbett’s Checkout. In what at first appears to be an ordinary supermarket, three customers (Alex Humes, Esme Patey-Ford and Brig Bennett) are at three tills manned by, well let’s be generous and say typical supermarket cashiers (Teddy Corbett, John Last and Wabriya King). As the ‘shopping’ is scanned it very quickly becomes clear that this is not, after all, your run of the mill local supermarket but is in fact a sort of gateway to something else where the contents of your basket are judged like never before. As all three customers realise the situation pretty much at the same time, the shock and horror they feel is excellently transmitted to the audience and also the cashiers. They end up calling their Supervisor, Tracy (Sukh Ojla) to come and deliver a final judgement on the by now pretty upset customers. Checkout is a lovely ensemble piece that takes a very common annoyance of life and turns it completely on its head, making everyone watching re-evaluate the content of their own basket should they ever get to this particular supermarket.
After the break, we were back with a bang with owen McCafferty’s Damage Done. On a plain stage, two elderly people (Karl Johnson and Sue Porrett) sit silently. After a while, they start to speak. It is obvious that they know each other, they may even be husband wife, and have got to that point in their lives where they don’t really listen to each other and continually bicker. Fascinating to watch as quite a lot of their conversation was, for me very familiar, being strikingly similar to the conversations my own parents have when sitting having a coffee and talking together. Ultimately, I got the feeling that though these two would spend eternity – it is possible that they were actually dead – arguing about whether they had a cat or a dog and other such unimportant things, they would ultimately do it together because the reality was they actually enjoyed themselves.
The final piece Kampala by Stephen Jeffreys was a bit of a problem for me. Set in Uganda, the play started with the arrival of independence in 1962 which was being celebrated wholeheartedly by Davina (Wabriya King), Frank (Raphael Bushay) and Kaya (Anna-Maria). However Rubes (Kashman Harris) is not celebrating as much as the others and is showing a very cynical attitude to the handover of power and the ‘bright’ future ahead. Skip ahead a few years and into the office of dictator Idi Amin (Raphael Bushay). Not just into his office but also into his mind as he discusses a minor uprising amongst students due to the death of a girl that would not succumb to the advances of one of his henchmen. Idi tells the story without drama and in what to him sounds like a perfectly reasonable way, suggesting that as the president, he was always in the right – even though he takes the word coincidence to the very extreme of its meaning. The final scene, taking place in a car on a pot-holed road in Uganda, threw me a bit as it felt, to me that it was not completely finished and, if I’m honest, it was difficult to fully hear the conversation of the characters in the car.
So, what can I say I learned from seeing Miniaturists 54 our 10th Birthday Bash? Well, the main message was that there are some pretty fantastic writers out there and productions like these are a marvelous showcase for them. Every time I have been to one of the short play events I have been amazed at how much can be done in a short space of time and with very limited props and scenery. The other great thing about this night was that there was something for everyone. After we left, my companion and I were trying to rank the plays. We each had a different favourite but, as I am writing the review, mine is the only one that counts – it was Twins in case you are interested. I could easily see some of these plays, particularly Kampala being expanded into a longer story where we would get more of a chance to know the story and the characters. It was also great to see plays written for and acted by the older generation and I particularly loved Phyllis McMahon’s really authentic performance.
Overall then Miniaturists 54 our 10th Birthday Bash was a wonderful showcase of new writing that really delivered a superb night out and has got me already looking forward to Miniaturists 55.
Review by Terry Eastham
The writers for Miniaturists 54
James Fritz is an Olivier-award nominated playwright. His most recent work includes Ross and Rachel (2015) which recently completed a critically-acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Fritz’s debut full length play Four minutes twelve seconds was staged at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, receiving a nomination for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre at the 2015 Olivier awards. Earlier this year, he was selected for the Channel 4 Screenwriting Course.
Stephen Jeffreys is an acclaimed playwright, screen writer and teacher. He has worked as literary associate for the Royal Court and has been awarded Winner of the Sunday Times Playwriting Award and the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright. His previous work includes The Libertine (1994)¸for which he also wrote the screenplay in 2004.
Owen McCafferty is a Northern Irish playwright, celebrated for his heightened use of language and distinctive style. Praised for his experimental approach, McCafferty’s previous work includes Closing Time (2002) and Scenes from the Big Picture (2003) which was awarded the John Whiting Award, the Meyer Whitworth Award and the Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for New Playwriting.
Poppy Corbett is a playwright, director and published author. Winner of Masterclass’s inaugural Pitch Your Play, Corbett’s winning play Hatchling (2013) received a full rehearsed reading at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Her work has been performed at venues including Park Theatre, Old Red Lion and Theatre 503 as well as Arcola Theatre (Miniaturists 39).
John O’Donovan is a London-based playwright from Co. Clare, Ireland. A graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, his plays include Haiy Brazil (Southwark Playhouse); Rogue and For Whom the Bell Tolls (Theatre503); The Home Front (Druid Theatre, Galway); Zugunruhe and After Virgil (RADA); The Castle Inn (Clapham Omnibus) and The Starveling (Miniaturists, Arcola). His work has been published in Bare Fiction, Verbal Arts Magazine and Crannóg.
The Miniaturists was founded in 2005 by writer Stephen Sharkey. In its ten year history, The Miniaturists have provided a platform for writers, directors and performers to explore ideas through staging work with a quick turnaround. Curated and produced by Will Bourdillon and Declan Feenan and staged every couple of months, each night sees five writers presenting a new piece of work in Arcola Theatre’s main space. Previous writers for The Miniaturists include David Eldridge, Duncan Macmillan, Moira Buffini and Tassos Stevens.