In a tiny upstairs theatre, a man in a wig and kimono asks us to imagine we’re in the Albert Hall. We never discover his name though, in his role in a glittering production of Madame Butterfly, he is known as “Second Japanese villager on the left”.
He has several failed careers behind him, from DJ and waiter to sperm donor. That the latter failure, the result of an unexpectedly low sperm count, is common knowledge backstage is just the latest in a catalogue of personal and professional humiliations endured by our lowly extra.
The first and by some stretch the most rewarding in a trio of self-contained but indirectly linked plays by Ripley Theatre, Madam Butterfly’s Child is a monologue within an opera, written by Lesley Ross and starring Gregory Ashton. There is something of TV’s Keith Barrett, the Welsh minicab driver played by Rob Brydon, in Ashton’s character, notably in the optimism in the face of hopelessness and the distorted perception of reality. The pathos that comes with recollections of previous theatrical endeavours – he says he shone in his last role as a pig in a play for children – is counterbalanced by the promise of a new opportunity, though despite his renewed vigour, you know it will unravel before it gets off the ground.
The next two plays barely skim the surface of their characters in comparison. Coming In To Land is set in a Tokyo hotel lobby shortly after the 2011 earthquake and finds two cabin stewards reflecting over their respective lots as they wait to be assigned rooms, the cynical and once-promiscuous older one (Nigel Fairs) chastened by the sensible, emotionally-aware newbie (Ashton again). Rather than engaging with their troubles you are left wondering why two men caught in the middle of an earthquake barely mention the devastation outside. The final musical piece, The Jolly Folly of Polly…, plots a predicable, if occasionally amusing path as a lonely flight attendant reflects over a romance with a passenger that comes to an end when she finds out that she is pregnant and he is married. As Polly, Suzanne Proctor gives it her all, wailing at the disappointment of her poor choices, though watching her sprint through several years of trauma in fifteen minutes, she isn’t the only one feeling worn out by the end.