Mad, foolish or very, very rich. Well, you'd have to be to write a play with 19 characters. Who in their right minds would put it on? Theatre wages may be disgracefully low, but a cast's salary bills do nasty things to producers' bank balances. Outside of lavish musicals, you won't find many producers willing to stump up the readies for Cecil B De Mille-scale operations.
I'd hazard a guess that the average cast size these days is about four. What hope, then, for the recent work of Bryony Lavery, who took it into her head to write two plays with 19 speaking parts? Quite a lot, actually. Goliath has been picking up remarkable reviews on its national tour and opened last night at London's Bush Theatre. More Light, meanwhile, packed out the National Theatre's largest auditorium last week as the climax of BT's National Connections Youth Theatre extravaganza.
The Sunday Telegraph had already had a wearisomely predictable fit of the heebie-jeebies, yelping that a play about "cannibalism", "castration" and (horror) "lesbianism" was hardly a fit subject for schools. As Sandbach School's majestic production proved, Lavery's formal, richly eloquent play, set centuries ago in the tomb of a dead emperor, is really about art, how we perceive it and how it is constructed. John Lonsdale's production was a powerfully stylised, startling piece of theatre, all the more impressive when you consider that his cast of around 40 boys were nearly all playing women.
One day, someone with vision will hang the expense and mount a full-scale professional production. Until then, console yourself with Goliath, in which all 19 parts are played by Nichola McAuliffe. Although this portrait of Britain during the 1991 riots is based on Bea Campbell's pioneering book, Lavery is absolutely clear about the business of theatre: "The place for real people is in real life."
Nevertheless, Lavery's multiple fictions and McAuliffe's performance have prompted endless letters from audience members. It's not often you receive a letter from policeadmitting that you've changed the way they think.
EYE ON THE NEW Matthew Francis has seduced the knockout Kathryn Evans (tremendous in On The 20th Century) and the razor-sharp Liza Sadovy (stunning in MTL's The Marriage of Figaro) to star in his revival of Side By Side By Sondheim. Don't hesitate.
Greenwich Theatre, London SE10 (0181-858 7755)Reuse content