One Million Tiny Plays About Britain is the brainchild of writer Craig Taylor, a footloose Canadian who arrived in London and kept up an old habit of recording everyday episodes and snippets of conversation. This perspective of the outsider looking in, the "foreigner with the notebook", allows him to create a peculiarly affecting portrait of life in the UK. Here, the Watermill Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre have taken a handful of Taylor's snapshots and injected them with a real verve, energy and often, poignancy.
We begin with a pair of clucking ushers, stealing mints from coat pockets, but are soon transported around the UK - a Belfast record store, a fruit and veg market in Stratford-upon-Avon, a café in Russell Square, a street in Sheffield. All the sketches are performed by the same two actors, Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls, and the device used to link the episodes is inspired: the production team have turned the stage into a mock-up bingo hall, with a flashing number board and gold streamers, and scene changes are announced by a sardonic caller ("Two fat ladies, 88. A tea room in Lichfield"). These interludes are as entertaining as the sketches - the two performers increasingly show signs of comic exhaustion as they peel off more layers, often with striptease-style synchronicity, and hastily rearrange the props onstage.
But that's not to take away from the brilliance of the plays themselves. Barclay's types are perhaps more complete - she nails the upmarket Londoner and farmer's market frequenter, and perfectly captures the intonation of the inquisitive child and the slangy drawl of the mouthy teen. Nicholls is more chameleonic, with a greater range of expression - the way he browses a menu over his glasses, one leg over the other, immediately brings a middle-aged man to life. At another point he becomes an office worker, talking inanely on the phone while stuffing in a sandwich. As Taylor has noted, sometimes, especially in London, conversations aren't overheard, but simply so loud and invasive that they are impossible to escape.
The content ranges from hilarious - a hen-night scrap on the 'Toon', stage-fright in the gent's - to touching - a builder trying to restore the dignity of a page 3 girl with a Snickers bar, an elderly lady trying to make small talk with a Ukrainian leafleter ("are you delivering the circular?!"). Refreshingly, given Press Night was on the night before Brexit, party politics were noticeably absent, though sketches did show a GP practice stretched to breaking point, and the lack of empathy at an asylum seekers' centre in Croydon. The darker themes were found in the personal rather than the political: some snapshots touched on marital breakdown, mental illness, or the loss of a family member. Two teenagers in a Swansea McDonalds discuss the suicide of a fellow student, while a gay man with bandaged wrists lies in hospital, his mother seemingly oblivious to his despair.
Despite these moments, together the sketches form a raucous, colourful collage, especially with a post-interval game of bingo thrown into the mix. It's tempting to try and reconstruct the whole, to use some kind of theatrical kintsugi to piece together the fragments. Has Taylor captured Britishness here, or something more human - our ceaseless, well-meaning attempts to fumblingly connect with one another, no matter how different we seem? The final sketch perhaps says it all. Two park-keepers argue while picking up rubbish, the props and costumes strewn across the floor, before finding a pleasing surprise amongst the debris that brings their conflict to an end. Every single scrap of life, this hilarious, touching patchwork of plays reminds us, has a little meaning in it.