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MINIATURISTS 53 – Arcola Theatre, London.

MINIATURISTS 53The latest in the Arcola’s long running Sunday evening series of new short plays, Miniaturists 53 assembles five new works, all from different writers. If you come along expecting semi-staged readings, you’ll be pleasantly surprised: despite this show lasting only two performances, each of the plays is given a proper production and the acting is solid throughout.

First up is Stewart Pringle’s Fixing It.  Showing an impressive chutzpah in its Shakespearean set-up, we start with a gravedigger and a human skull sharing an otherwise bare stage. Indeed when Tom Richards starts to speak, his syntax and word choice is so rich and elaborate that you could be forgiven for thinking he’s doing a riff on a forgotten passage from Hamlet. While conscious of the associations, it reveals itself quickly to be something a lot stranger than just a squib on a classic.

Essentially a dystopian tale of the penal justice system taken to a ludicrous extreme, its premise suggests satire, but the mood it creates is instead uncanny and haunted. The language has a lot to do with this, jumping skillfully between registers – from earthy prose to rhyming couplets. Even if it overdoes things a bit –  it makes enough case for the weirdness of the world without adding in the Ministry of Justice inflicting punishment of dead criminals’ souls – this is the standout work of the evening: a genuinely exciting piece that makes a convincing case for modern Theatre adopting a more boldly poetic style.

Joe Harbot’s Match follows this with an equally stylised play, albeit in a diametrically opposed way. A tale of internet dating among near-automaton yuppies, it’s slickly performed by Theo Cowan and Frances Bailey, and the writing is sharp and observant. Nonetheless it feels too close to a lot of similar parodies of jargon spouting bourgeoisie. There’s a sympathy deficit too: in so condescending to its deliberately vapid characters, the laughs end up feeling a little hollow.

Vinay Patel’s Bhai Zone is more straightforward knockabout fun – a daftly topical tale of a pickup artist teaching his skills to young men to stop women going to Syria to join ISIS. It’s scrappily written and broadly performed, but it’s not without charm even if it doesn’t do much beyond that. Up next is Ashes of Roses, written and performed by Catherine Harvey, it’s a pleasant if slight one-woman piece about an unexpected talent show success. Its major advantage is Harvey’s authentic and engaging performance, but the story and manner makes it seem a little too familiar.

Treading a much less travelled path is Will Bourdillon’s Flyboy. If all the other pieces have had a satirical edge, this seems to be self-consciously avoiding it. A love story between a boy who can fly and a girl who can make herself invisible, it undercuts its magical premise by taking it absolutely seriously. Told in a naturalistic and engaging way, and with a great rabbit-in-the-headlights performance by Charlie Haskins, it’s a strong end to the evening.

To say Minaturists 53 is a mixed bag is to state the obvious – it’s the nature of a night like this. Despite this though it has a lot going for it, even the lesser pieces are at least engaging, while in its stronger moments it shows writers willing to use the space a night like this gives them to create something that feels genuinely fresh and exciting.

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Reviewed 27/9/15

By Robbie Lumsden

27th September 2015
Arcola Theatre, London E8 3DL.

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