Five plays, five different writers, five different casts, one showcase. Sounds like a bargain, a chance to see new work over the course of an evening in bitesize chunks. The Miniaturists, now in its tenth year, is the theatrical equivalent of a buffet, giving viewers the chance to sample different styles, themes and topics all at once. It’s a meal for the more adventurous diner, one who picks something before knowing whether he or she actually enjoys the taste. And with all mystery choices, some options are surprisingly tasty and enjoyable, whilst others are a bit bland and forgettable. But since they are all at most 20 minutes long, it’s easy to move on from the taste of one just in time to sample the next offering.
The variety in the five plays is refreshing to see; curator-producers Will Bourdillon and Declan Feenan had obviously thought about the work and their audience before putting these options together. The result is three light-hearted comedic sketches bookended by two more intense pieces, all with a topic in mind and a question to ask the audience.
The most light-hearted and ultimately funny piece is Match by Joe Harbot. Theo Cowan and Francesca Bailey sit next to each other and inform the audience of their first romantic meeting on an unnamed dating app. The dialogue is almost entirely matter-of-fact; the actors either describe events in third person or rationalise their thoughts and emotions in first person, but don’t actually directly address each other until right at the end. Harbot writes as if the interaction is devoid of emotion and yet the inherent comedy in the lines and their delivery make this piece warm and funny. The observations surrounding the modern day dating ritual are hysterically accurate: “A photograph says something about me”; “I message back a smiley face emoji.” The whole piece feels modern, fresh – almost like a blog entry that the audience can laugh at together.
The other two comedy pieces are less effective. Bhai-Zone by Vinay Patel, in which Adam Loxley teaches Ali Zaidi and Shahnewaz Jake how to pick up girls in a club, is confused. The majority of the play keeps the audience guessing – the whole situation doesn’t seem right but the twist at the end doesn’t fully resolve anything. The acting is funny to the point of polite laughter, but nothing much greater than that. Ashes of Roses by Catherine Harvey is a monologue whereby a Z-list X Factor star tries to kick-start a career off the back of her TV appearances. She gives an interview and reminisces about the show, her mum and her upbringing. Harvey has some comedic moments that reflect the stereotypical personality of a number of these fame seekers – her character’s mantra for example, “I am made of tin foil. I am shiny and reflect all negative thoughts.” As a physical actress she uses the stage well, but overall the piece doesn’t quite pack the laughs into the given time frame.
In a more serious vain, Stewart Pringle kicks off the showcase with Fixing It, a monologue delivered by Tom Richards about a gravedigger and a particularly unusual evening following the burial of an unsavoury character. The lines are too often delivered in a monotone but Richards doesn’t break focus with the audience; his steely glare and well-timed silences really allow for the material to sink in. Pringle’s writing makes the delivery easy and he incorporates some wonderfully poetic passages. With an academic grasp of English literature and linguistic devices he gives shade to the whole piece, “Do we have the right? Light a fire, everlasting pain, to make the guilty die and die again?” could easily be taken from verses of a poem, rich with texture and asking unanswerable, philosophical questions.
As a suitable bookend to conclude the showcase, Fly Boy by Will Bourdillon produces the best acting performance of the night. Charlie Haskins expertly inhabits the guise of a teenage boy, recently thrust into the media spotlight after they discover his ability to fly. He meets Manisha, also unearthed by the public for turning invisible. One chance meeting and years of emailing back and forth causes Charlie to develop indecipherable feelings for her, the only other person who sees him as a boy and not a super hero. Initially forced together (“You can both do something amazing, something incredible” as a GQ interviewer so aptly phrases it) Charlie has to realise, like many normal boys, that his desires aren’t necessarily reciprocated in the way he wants. Haskins here is awkward, shy and stutters his words in a manner that straightaway lets the audience see who he is – nervous, uncharismatic and ultimately cursed by being different. In this showcase, the final play is a masterclass in delivery – the timing, the tone of voice and the body language are all in complete unison. Despite being written by one of the showcase’s producers, the curators saved the best work for last.
Miniaturists is playing the Arcola Theatre, with the next showcase occurring on 15 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.