Spilt Milk Theatre is part of the massive influx of new theatre companies sprouting up in Cardiff and, arguably, they’re one of the most prolific. Rather than only building to one large production, Spilt Milk’s approach has been to present a regular series of scratch nights in the vein of Dirty Protest. It’s an exciting time to be a young company, with so many emerging Welsh artists ready to prove themselves, something Tobias Weatherburn and Becca Lidstone are tapping into. On the evidence of their most recent presentation, they’re firmly on the right track.
Instead of a scratch night, AJ’s Coffee House instead played host to two 45-minute monologues – Susan Monkton’s Street and Kevin Jones’ Izzy’s Manifestos. Though exploring vastly different subject matter, seemingly coincidental similarities are very apparent. Protagonists in both plays are in early adulthood, both weighed down by an insecurity about how they are perceived by society. They are millennials, stumbling through a world they don’t quite understand, something both writers capture brilliantly. Until pivotal moments change them, the women in both plays also display a healthy amount of cynicism. As confused as they are by the world, they’re also jaded by it, symptomatic of contemporary Britain.
Of the two pieces, it’s Monkton’s that deals with the confusion in more focus. Ella Maxwell plays Laura, a young woman who seems to have few aspirations beyond getting drunk and sleeping around. When a seismic event rocks Cardiff, she’s forced to question who she is and who she wants to be. Street is very much a game of two halves, both in content and quality. The first half of the play is written beautifully by Monkton; she does a fine job of getting into the nuances of her protagonist. While it’s one we all resonate with, Maxwell certainly makes the character her own with a superb performance. The young actor displays impeccable comic delivery and successfully makes Laura both mildly irritating and wholly engaging.
Things take a bit of a dive in the second half. In the aftermath of a major turning point in the story Monkton’s writing also makes a seismic shift, but she never feels at ease with this new style. The script becomes increasingly stuttered – deliberately, of course – but it undoes the well-crafted character development of the first half. Despite Maxwell and Lidstone’s (directing here) best efforts, Street just doesn’t recover from that jarring change. It’s important to note that Street is still a work in progress for Monkton and, with the right changes to the script, she’ll easily have a top-quality play to her name.
In contrast to Street, Kevin Jones’ short play definitely feels more polished, but then Izzy’s Manifestos also doesn’t have such a sudden change of tone. There are shifts, sure, but the changes are demonstrably subtler, and the journey that protagonist Izzy takes more gradual. There’s a coldness to both Laura and Izzy, but there’s something inherently angrier in Izzy. With acerbic wit and misplaced arrogance, she presents the personal manifestos that have shaped her life. Relishing the freedom afforded by director Luke Hereford, Angharad Berrow gives an equally superb central performance. Jones’ very funny script is enhanced by her physically, the grace of her movements clashing expertly with the lack of grace in her life.
Izzy’s Manifestos never stops being funny, but a darkness quietly seeps in and looms over the final third of the play. The ending is predictable, but it’s the ending the audience want. Anything else would have been a disappointment, and Jones duly delivers. Hereford manages to put his directorial stamp on the play, giving it the same frenetic pace that made Golf Course War Machine such an engaging watch. Izzy is performer, orator, life coach and conductor all at once, and it’s a joy to watch.
Though Street may not have the consistency of Izzy’s Manifesto, they’re both hugely enjoyable pieces of theatre. It’s the performances that really stand out in both pieces – both actors display a prowess that belies their experience. It’s heartening to see companies like Spilt Milk nurturing the future of Welsh talent in this way, building their own reputation in the process. Things are looking up.