Written by Billie Collins
Directed by Adam Quayle
The biggest things happen
In the quietest of ways
And we don’t even notice
Don’t even see it
Don’t make a fuss
Or a dance
Too Much World At Once is an impressive theatre debut for Billie Collins. This coming of age story has big aspirations; looking at themes around queerness, mental health issues and environmental disaster. There is a real lyricism in the writing and a strong feel for naturalistic dialogue. It’s no mean feat to write a fifteen year old boy who turns into a bird and readies himself to fly thousands of miles to his neurotic sister who is doing her bit for climate change by gathering data on albatrosses on a remote island in Antarctica. Meanwhile closer to home his Mum is struggling to connect and parent in a fractured family, while teaching and trying quite literally to hold the family home together. New boy Ellis is a breath of fresh air to both mother and son, bringing colour to their lives in ways that go beyond his nail polish and rainbow take on school uniform. It’s a lot to cram into two hours on a small stage but director Adam Quayle does a excellent job of bringing the writers’ vision to life. Quayle who is the Joint Artistic Director of Box of Tricks has made this ambitious debut look and feel authentic.
The staging by designer Katie Scott is really beautiful in its simplicity. The central dias is shaped like the Earth with a backdrop of decaying wood…orange boxes, simple wooden furniture, bare window frames and driftwood that look like they may have been washed ashore. Overhead hangs a chandelier of driftwood that is reminiscent of the sword of Damacles. This staging is compact but highly effective in driving the narrative of the play. It’s further enhanced by sensitive and imaginative lighting by Richard Owen. At times the soft spread of light looks like the oceans of Earth or the rich splatter shades of guano. The lighting effects are at times simply gorgeous as in the closing moments where the the cast are lit like a rich tableau that is truly memorable.
The four actors are all well cast and give good performances. Paddy Stafford as central character Noble embodies the withdrawn boy who has closed off from his mother and desperately misses his sister. He gives a highly effective performance as he transitions into a bird and the occasional delicate movements of his head evoke a curious, perhaps wary bird. Evie Hargreaves plays his sister Cleo, a research scientist on Bird Island who is pulsating with nervy energy, passionate about conservation but overwhelmed by the harsh reality of the task and her surroundings in Antarctica. Alexandra Mathie is Fiona, their mother and the local science teacher. She is utterly believable as a brusque Northerner who seems more sentimental over her crumbling family home than sensitive to the emotional needs of her children. The force of nature in the play is Ewan Grant as Ellis, a newcomer to the school and excluded by his peers due to his sexuality. Grant exudes the enthusiasm and openness of a Labrador puppy bringing an upbeat and humorous energy to the production. He is the perfect foil to this family who have lost their way and each other.
Collins writes with the confidence of a natural poet. There is an innate lyricism and a sense of magical storytelling in this piece. It will be exciting to see her work develop as a playwright. The central flaw within Too Much World At Once is precisely that…there is a lot of world and not enough about who the characters are within this world on stage. This is an exciting premise for a play but the characters feel underdeveloped at times. The mother has some back story and context yet it is frustrating to watch this woman who sits painting the nails of a boy her son barely knows instead of battering down the doors of the local police when her 15 year old child has been missing for days. A lot of the action in this narrative is driven by what has happened within the fractured dynamics of this family unit yet these are barely touched upon. What has happened in the marriage? A deeply depressed and highly anxious daughter…is she living out her mothers’ unfulfilled ambitions? Most frustrating is the central character Noble as he never feels fully fleshed out…but perhaps he is just a fledgling in a damaged nest.
Director Adam Quayle has done a lot to make a potentially tricky play come to life on a small stage. At times the production can seem unwieldy or too busy as the chorus moves around swooping like birds or moving chairs like they are being swept away in a storm. This would all probably lend itself more effectively to a larger stage. The sound design by Lee Affen adds additional charm as he works magic to bring the world of nature and the elements to life onstage. This is a big play on a small stage but perhaps aptly so…
And this is all I know…that it’s a good world to be small in. And there is so much here to love.
HOME 3rd March -11th March 2023