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Preview: Many Moons – ‘the edges of a crowd’

In Many Moons, one character remarks that pushing for space on a crowded London street “feels a bit like the end of the world.” It is this tension between the intimate and the immense that Alice Birch is concerned with in in her debut full-length play, brought to the Michael Pilch Studio this week in a new production by Small Fry Theatre.

First shown at Theatre 503 in London in 2011, Many Moons follows the lives of four people living in the London suburb of Stoke Newington. The trajectories of these characters come together to create a captivating, and at times sinister, portrait of the urban experience.

The play’s action takes place entirely within one day in July. The characters navigate the same few square miles, colliding at different points. Meg (Abby McCann) is a pregnant housewife, suffering in the domestic haven of her own making. Ollie has a fascination with the cosmos, but is crippled by social awkwardness. Juniper (Mati Warner) has just moved to London and is optimistically on the hunt for love. Robert (Henry Wyard) is growing old and simply wants to keep himself to himself. Whilst these four are seemingly unconnected, by bringing these disparate identities together, Birch’s text forces us to think about how we all fit in.

The selection of scenes I preview a few days before opening night starts at the play’s beginning. Director Rudi Gray’s staging is simple yet powerful – I am told that Small Fry’s Many Moons will be in the round, with each character sat on a chair at the stage’s edges, turned in to face one and other.

The play begins with a monologue from each character, and the staging has a visual effect in this section not dissimilar from what I imagine an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting would look like. In the opening scene, each character sits, or stands up, to say their piece – together enacting a kind of group confession, revealing what they think of themselves or their lives as if they had been prompted by some non-existent group facilitator. Meg explains how she likes to “make bread in the bread maker and marmalade on the stove” but her monologue takes a more ominous turn when she lets slip that she “found a dead rabbit in (her) compost bin once.”

Juniper declares that she thinks of herself as “a bit of a free spirit”, but concedes that wouldn’t say she was a feminist in front of a boyfriend because it’s “not that sexy really, is it?”

Birch’s writing is an absolute treat in these monologues, the text being abundant and delightfully dense. At times the characters even speak in lists – Meg remarks that she likes to “go on Facebook on Youtube on Hotmail and Gmail and Mumsnet and MySpace with Jeremy Kyle then Woman’s Hour and Loose Women in the background.”

Birch enjoys scattering the text with snapshots that serve to sum up our modern world – “traffic light parties” and “Snakebites” – with phrases that are so believable they bring you to the point of laughter – “I’m a bit cartwheely, a bit sort of out there, you know?”

The subject matter explored in these opening monologues reflects what I think Birch is really interested in in Many Moons. In these monologues, the four characters are attempting to construct a sense of self and present it to us with the markers that can be read and understood by a modern audience.

Juniper insists that she is “very good at empathising with people” and that she was “going to go on the Reclaim the Night March last year” but couldn’t because “it was so rainy.”

We come to understand which categories these characters identify themselves with – Robert “liked being called a ‘know-it-all’” – and which categories they firmly reject. But, crucially, Birch points out the gap between how these characters want to be perceived, and who they really are. In this way Many Moons explores the very boundaries of the self.

In bringing four very different characters together onto the same stage, Birch is asking questions about how our understanding of the self transforms when we are part of a collective – for example, a city. Collective experience is explored through the use of movement in Small Fry’s production. A particularly compelling moment I saw from later on in the play was a representation of Ollie walking through a crowded street. Standing in the centre of the stage, Scruton is surrounded by the other actors who tug at his arms, legs, and torso, rotating around him as they go. This has the effect of intensifying the presence of the four actors on stage, creating a spatial experience that is utterly claustrophobic.

The play comes to a head when the four characters attend the same street market, unknowingly walking within metres of each other – at one point Meg and Ollie literally bump straight into one and other. Is it “fate” like Juniper declares? Later, when I ask the cast and crew what they Birch meant with the play’s title, Gray points out that all of the characters share an interest in cosmology. I suggest that each character is like a celestial object, bound together somehow, and McCann comments how in our society we exist as individuals but there are “moments when we interconnect” which have the potential to “change your life forever.”

Producer Lizy Jennings thinks it’s also about how we “orbit” around others, how as individuals, we “obsess over other people,” without realizing the extent of it. We are many moons orbiting around several different centres, colliding as we go.

Small Fry Theatre’s new production of Many Moons promises to be a delicate and haunting exploration of Alice Birch’s stunning text. I advise all those who can to head down to the Pilch this week to see it.

Many Moons is at the Michael Pilch Studio until Saturday 23rd February.

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