CW: #MeToo

Your Little Play is a uniquely brilliant and thought-provoking piece of new writing by Anna Myrmus, which is showing at the Pilch this week. It concerns the life of ambitious playwright and director Laura, who is accepted onto an accessibility scheme run by her idol, Louis Sherman, who works with her as she directs his play. As time goes on, Laura is thrown into a vicious spiral as she is forced to make increasingly difficult choices, hurting other women who have suffered at the hands of Louis, who is not quite the hero Laura thought he was. This play features possibly the best new writing I have seen in Oxford thus far, with an elaborately constructed plot, a host of multi-faceted characters, and lines that grip, chill, and shock. It effectively shows the balance between self-interest and the greater good, and the dangers and pitfalls of complicity. It is a sharp social commentary on both the reality of sexual misconduct in the acting industry, and the moral sacrifices we make at the expense of others.

What struck me the most about this play was the fact that no one character is without flaws: not all the victims are good people, and not all the aggressors (or complicit characters) entirely bad. Despite being the victim in this story, Laura is not meant to be likeable; while she is being controlled and gaslit by Louis at work, she is similarly manipulative towards her best friend and flatmate, Maya, at home. She blames her for not being there as a friend, even when Maya had other constraints on her time. She constantly pushes her away and guilt-trips her when she feels lonely and insecure. And later, she lashes out with jealousy and spite when Maya’s relationship with her fiancé (and later husband), Tom, deepens, indicating her deep-seated fear of abandonment.

On the flip side, while Louis quickly establishes himself as a braggadocious, condescending narcissist at the beginning of the play (“I know you think I’m like the Pope – infallible?”), he is also charming, funny, and even kind at other points. The intricate web of potential actions and consequences that Myrmus has constructed amongst the characters also shows that there is no easy way out of the situation, and that every character has many reasons to justify their morally dubious actions and has too many sacrifices on the line for them to do the right thing. It was a nuanced approach to what could otherwise have been a 2D portrayal of #MeToo; instead of glorifying the victims as innocent and sympathetic, and demonising any person who abuses their power or is complicit in the situation, there were layers to each of the characters that made the play all the more engaging to watch.

A word must be said about each of the cast members, who all delivered stellar performances. Isabella Gilpin as Laura excellently portrayed her character’s progression from a wide-eyed, nervous girl who was eager to please her hero, to her final appearance as a cold, unfeeling woman who has won a Pyrrhic victory. Alexander Marks was all too easy to hate as the slimy Louis, and it was enthralling to watch how he perfectly balanced Louis’ invalidating, manipulative guilt-trips with just enough self-victimising charm and sympathy to make the character incredibly believable. Jake Rich as highly-strung producer Mark was also a delight, all matter-of-fact with tight smiles and a no-nonsense manner. As his character’s motivations were revealed, he epitomised the sinister nature of the industry, where everyone is out for themselves, and is willing to step on whoever they can to succeed.

Lorelei Piper played Emma, a pretty aspiring actress who falls victim to Louis’ whims, and who is the catalyst of the play’s events when she speaks out about his actions, forcing the other characters to choose which side to take. Her character was easy to sympathise with, and also offered moments of humour at points – her ‘audition’ for Louis’ play and her bumbling answers to Laura’s grilling questions in rehearsals generated much laughter from the audience. Ellie Harrington gave a rivetingly anguished performance as Maya, Laura’s best friend; her frustration and shock at the events in Laura’s life, and her sense of helplessness as she was gradually shut out and pushed away, was all too familiar to anyone who has been a friend to a victim of abuse.

James Akka and Amelia Holt played three supporting characters each, and their beautifully versatile performances must also be commended. However, it is Harrison Gale who gave the most outstanding performance of the night as Louis’ wife, Anne. Initially an unassuming character who bumbles around making tea and cakes in the background, she proceeds to deliver the biggest plot twist yet (and there were several!). Towards the end of the play, she launches into a powerful monologue about the web she and Laura have found themselves entangled in, involving Catch-22s on all fronts: no matter what either of them decide, someone, some woman, will suffer. Both of them have to decide whether to prioritise their work and talent by putting their morals aside, staying quiet about Louis’ actions, and succeeding in life, or prioritising the ‘story’, by telling the truth only to be cast out by society and disappearing into anonymity without having achieved anything significant at all. Gale later revealed to me that this very scene had been added last-minute over the Easter vacation, and it is clear that the play would have sent a very different message if not for this inspired edit to the script.

While this play was thoroughly captivating, it was not without its flaws, few though they were. The scene transitions involved a lot of set rearrangement, which got a bit long and awkward at points, and another note I made was of the odd placement of the 5-minute interval about 80% of the way through the play, which did not feel necessary and created an imbalance between the lengths of the two parts. However, the lighting design, masterfully conceptualised by Harvey Dovell, more than made up for these oversights in production: the final scene, with Laura sitting on the sofa mulling over her choices while Louis stood behind her like a silent threat, was lit in a way that sent a tangible chill through the audience.

With so many plays focusing on the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement this term, the bar for conceptually relevant new writing has been set incredibly high. Your Little Play completely exceeded my expectations in ways I could not have imagined. The sharp writing, fantastic performances, and a production team with a clear vision make for a fearsome combination, and it is clear that every single person involved in this project is brimming with talent. Your Little Play is a 90-minute triumph, and is little only in name.