143 stands for one writer, four actors, three plays. It’s a showcase for young playwright Isabella Stokes, who serves up bite-sized meditations on love and money. It’s also the debut show for Tiny Theatre Company, founded by Alexandra Brailsford and Olivia May Roebuck who also form half of the cast. It’s fantastic that Theatre N16 have given a platform for so much young talent, yet these three pieces feel sketchy.
In Stokes’ plays, millennials teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Men bury their heads in the sand and leave women to pick up the pieces. Stokes is strong when she explores the realities of life when you can’t afford toothpaste, but her reflections on love often feel schmaltzy.
That’s the case with opening play Pearl. Told in interlaced, contrasting monologues from young couple Daniel (Danny Merrill) and Ava (Brailsford), Stokes shows how money troubles put pressure on domestic happiness. She may or may not have borrowed the formal technique from Mike Bartlett’s first play Not Talking (now playing at the Arcola), but the piece is hampered by the insubstantiality of the characters.
Pearl plays out like a run-of-the-mill romcom with the fast-forward button held down. You never get to know either Ava or Daniel enough to care about them. It’s over-earnest too, with lines like Daniel saying he showed Ava “a world and I guess we forgot to live there” and Ava asking “who’s going to be there to love the old versions of us?” Its picture of love as “clothes glued to the floor” and “snoring, you not me”, is hackneyed.
Bloody Hands is an angrier piece, following two homeless women who take shelter in an abandoned Barclays. Maria (Roebuck) has been living this life for years and takes the naïve Becky (Brailsford) under her wing. Brailsford comes to the fore here and you can’t help but feel for her character’s vulnerability. The piece is at its strongest when the two women talk about their day-to-day lives and stealing tampons from pharmacies, but is shakier when the pair pontificates about fate and social mobility. It’s not helped by the presence of Merrill as leader of this homeless community, who lectures the audience on the need to take action against homelessness. He makes valid points, but it feels preachy and showing is always more effective than telling.
Cold Chips is the most promising play of the three and Stokes’ characterisation is more accomplished here. Proving that less is more, the play is a simple two hander with no formal gimmicks. We watch the months pass as best friends Ella (Roebuck) and Ryan (Aizaac Sidhu) visit their favourite chip shop and sit on the same bench. Ryan, like Daniel from Pearl, is careless and broke, rapidly making his way through a series of dead end jobs that never last more than a week. Ella tries in vain to get his life back on track, but is nursing a hidden hurt of her own. The piece is great right up until the end, when Stokes pulls an emotional twist which seems to come from nowhere and is entirely unprepared for.
There is something enjoyably youthful about the anthology with its upbeat pop soundtrack and brazen politics. Yet, with each piece only running to around 25 minutes, Stokes has to do an awful lot to sell the characters and their dilemmas and she doesn’t quite pull it off. The actors from Tiny Theatre Company give good performances, director Katie Turner keeps the pieces taut and it does us all good to have our faces rubbed in the dire financial situation of the younger generation. Stokes, however, is yet to prove herself as a playwright.
143 played at the Theatre N16 until 10 May
Photo: Pearl, Tiny Theatre Company