For one night, the debut presentation of Small Fry in The Play Factory in Porth sparks a lot to be admired and celebrated. Originally conceived on the University of South Wales’ MA Drama course, and developed through scratch performances in the WMC and The Other Room, Small Fry is brought in full form, for the first time, to the people of Porth. This is a choice not to be underestimated as the power and compassion of its performance stays in the room long after the final bow. For the team of young theatre makers you can tell that this is just the beginning of many a successful future – an impression of optimism we unavoidably share for the play’s unexpected heroine Ellie Mathews.
In this one-woman play, Yasmin Williams commandeers the space as the brazen seventeen year-old. Williams takes the audience captive to her story transporting us with her from Cardiff’s Queen Street, to the savoury section in Greggs, to cramped antics in messy bathroom stalls, and back home to Porth. Jones and Neal’s choice of staging ensures that the space never fails to evolve with Williams yanking and draging us restlessly through the many locations of her story. At the front of the room is a square of wooden boards, perhaps still sticky from a youth disco or an OAP zumba class. Bordered by a bouncy carpet and passive leather sofas, on chairs set either side, our feet grounded on the boards below, they merge with the space. Our presence is necessary. We’re here to listen to voice often forgotten. In their lack of resources, the economy of the set drives the storytelling to joyfully creative means. With only a worn wooden bench, the challenge for it to establish as many scenes as possible offers up the most dynamic moments within the piece. Williams is captivating and sensitively honest in her portrayal of a lost young woman fighting to do her best for herself and her family. When she is at her most playful and mischievous she is at her best. Her entrance is an electrifying moment of her savouring that exact essence: prowling the stage, and daring her audience. In future performances, which I sincerely hope the play has, I predict Williams’ bold and brazen performance will become a fire-rocket of energy and daring assurance. Paired with the tempestuous pace of its script the production will provoke striking effect.
Lloyd’s script is as ingeniously funny as it is sensitively humble. Her script balances on a knife’s edge, yet never falling to romanced sentimentality or dismissive silliness. It wrangles between charmingly acerbic declarations of love for corned beef, and sobering admissions of an individual’s struggle. Corned beef, often considered an iconically working-class treat, is offered at the foyer before the play, set in Morrisons sharing tubs. Ellie’s morning pursuit for the tantalizing treat even consumes the first three to five minutes of the play. It’s a symbol of pleasure and celebration. Lloyd’s play is a celebration of a working-class heroine, never in spite of her background, but in homage to all that’s made her, and everything that she can be. The narrative never indulges despair or embitterment. It’s the story of a young life, raring and ready for all possibilities. Small Fry is not a focused polemic against the gate holders of an oppressive and often punitive existence. Lloyd doesn’t come for parliamentary budget cuts, or an under-funded NHS; she’s speaking to what it means to protect and serve family. An example of true compassion and care which is political in its very presentation. Small Fry is a declaration of duty and honour be it for country or for those we love. It’s a short and well-contained piece, yet the audience are left with loose ends to pull at. Lloyd covers a lot of bases in 50 minutes, some more thoroughly than others. However, I can’t help but feel that this is a deliberate, if not quite necessary, decision. Here is a young woman tearing at the framework for an existence she could have. The chaotic blur of Ellie’s former life leaves the lasting image all the more powerful.
Small Fry speaks to the optimism of youth. As the audience leave hoping that this can be realised for Ellie they inevitably will think of the play’s young theatre makers. They may go on to conquer beyond borders, but I am quite certain they will not forget their beloved hometowns any time soon.