Theatre Review: The Miniaturists 54 10th Birthday, Arcola Theatre

Mini plays with big ideas, The Miniaturists 54’s Birthday Bash celebrated the written word with imagination 

Checkout by Poppy Corbett, Photographer credit - Claudia Marinaro.jpg

Checkout by Poppy Corbett. Photograph by Claudia Marinaro

Great things come in small packages so they say, and, as with the haiku, the short story and sonnets, creating constraints in art can encourage creativity where too much space can stifle it. It makes sense, then, that plays as long as scenes allow the writing to shine unencumbered by conventional narrator arcs or structure.

The short form play is something new to me, but not to The Miniaturists 54 who have been bringing the best in condensed script writing to the stage for the past decade. The Miniaturists 54 celebrated their 10th anniversary at Dalston’s theatrical gem The Arcola with five original short-form plays from burgeoning young writers and some older(er) hands – established playwright Owen McCafferty wrote the fourth of the evening’s pieces, Damage.

Curated by writers Declan Feenan and Will Bourdilon, the Miniaturists focus on the writer who are also heavily involved with the production of their script, including choosing the director. That’s not to say the acting is sidelined, many of the performances on this 10th anniversary show were every bit as committed and punchy as they would be in a longer production.

The plays are linked by a theme of life, death, renewal and displacement. The evening began with Twins by James Fritz, which saw an elder woman (Phyllis McMahon) reminiscing about her life as she flicks through a photograph album. We learn at the beginning that the woman lost her twin just before she was born, a name-less ghost that haunts her through her life that is counted down in scientific terms by her shadow (Simona Bitmate).

This is followed by If We Got some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You, an Irish-set two-hander where two young men, having stolen £500 from a step-dad, hide out on the roof of his house, precariously close to the edge of both the ledge and the truth of their feelings for each other. The first half closes with the wonderfully imaginative Checkout where St Peter’s Gate is reconsidered as a supermarket. If you’re lucky you get a ‘bag for life’ that takes you back down to earth and a second chance. It was a funny, quirky piece that closed out the first half in style.

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O'Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

If We Could Get Some More Cocaine by John O’Donovan. Photographer: Claudia Marinaro

The aforementioned Damage is another two-hander, this time an elderly couple played by Karl Johnson and Sue Porrett, squabble and row seemingly harmlessly, until the end brings a rawer, darker feel.

It’s a shame then that the evening rather stumbles with the baggy Kampala that takes the vast theme of Uganda’s independence and the rise and fall of Idi Amin and attempts to condense it into three short scenes seen through the eyes of a group of students. The set-up felt unfocused and confusing despite some committed performances.

This final piece, while ambitious, proved that short form play writing is an art form in itself and not every subject is ripe for its condensed structure. These series of one-offs seem to work best when they’re not telling a story so much as an idea, revelling in the joy of the written word and the creativity a 20-minute slot unleashes. 

The Miniaturists

Theatre Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Football forms a background to Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s Belfast-based drama, but the odds played out on stage in this searing 75-minute play are far bigger and run much deeper than even Bill Shankly could imagine.

Quietly is Northern Ireland’s brutal history in microcosm set in a pub on the city’s fringes where a Catholic and a Protestant meet to play out their own linked personal and painful history.

Northern Ireland are playing a World Cup qualifying match against Poland at home. Polish barman Robert is supporting his home nation with vocal frustration. As usual, he has just one customer, regular Johnny, a morose man shrouded in disappointment resentment, seeking refuge, as he does every night, in this pub at the top of the road. But tonight Jimmy warns Robert to expect another punter and that there “may be shouting”. When the third man, Ian, arrives, there is more than just a bit of shouting, his presence setting off sparks that ignite the fire of these two men’s shared personal history throwing up confessions, half-apologies and regret as Robert looks on as referee.

This tight 75 minute long play bristles with anger, disappointment, resentment – and forgiveness. As the play reached its emotional crescendo, there was a lot of sniffling which I can’t believe was all due to hayfever. But in amongst the angst there were some lovely amusing  moments that cut through the gloom.

Quietly is unpretentious, striking and deeply moving in its simplicity, these are not men used to talking about their feelings or admitting their mistakes. Johnny and Ian’s story is one of many from a certain point in Belfast’s history and its power lies in the way McCafferty draws out the personal from the newspaper headlines. Theatre is so often about small things wrought large – an end of an affair, a family secret – but Quietly is a big story diluted to its essence; the pain of two families destroyed by hate, the effect of history on individuals.

As affecting and as nicely structured as McCafferty’s script is, it’s the actors who elevate Quietly to such an emotional place. Patrick O’Kane, an old school friend and long-term McCafferty collaborator, as Jimmy pulls out a controlled powerhouse of a performance that’s moving yet low-key. Declan Conlon is unassumingly brilliant as Ian, a man weighed down by his past and Robert Zawadzki as the barman brings a lightness of touch when most needed.

Unshowy, yet exhilarating and gripping, the brilliance of Quietly should be shouted from the roof tops

by Suzanne Elliott