Gareth Williams

If my life were to be described on Twitter, my 140 characters would probably include: Amateur Baker, TV Lover, Welsh Learner, Contemplative Christian, One-time Alien Voiceover, Country Music Convert, Anxious Introvert I love the arts and am passionate about the importance of their place within society, whether that be TV, radio, film, literature, the theatre, social media, the list could go on... Here's to the creatives of the world!

Review, Eye of the Storm, Theatr na nÓg at Pontio Arts Centre by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

My love affair with theatre began a few years ago with Under Milk Wood. Theatr Clwyd’s production of Dylan Thomas’ most famous work was a revelation, a conversion experience that has led me to take a seat for many a show since. Over the last year or so, such journeys have become less frequent. Life has a habit of evolving with time, and I think I lost a sense of what made theatre so special for me in the first place. Two plays have recently rekindled the fire within me. I do not think it a coincidence that both happen to be made and based in Wales. Along with Emily White’s Pavilion, Theatr na nÓg’s Eye of the Storm reflects the nation in which I live; the nation from which I claim part of my identity. I wonder whether a lack of representation has been a factor in my dulled appreciation of theatre. If so, these two plays have supercharged my passion for the medium back to life.

Set in a small town, post-mining community, Eye of the Storm draws numerous parallels with Pavilion. This includes a focus on young people and the theme of aspiration. Writer and director Geinor Styles chooses to tackle the challenges faced by this demographic through an excellent supporting cast that circle around the main lead, played by Rosey Cale. Cale gives a strong and quietly emotive performance as Emmie Price, an intelligent and practical teenager whose ambition to study tornadoes at an American University is severely tested by the circumstances of her present reality. Living in a caravan with her mum, who has bipolar disorder, Emmie must juggle her role as a young carer with the demands of school and household chores, along with negotiating the rent and constant electricity problems with inept park manager Mr Church (Keiron Bailey). It is a wonder that she has the time, let alone the inclination, to dream big. Yet Styles has created a dogged and determined young woman whose empowering presence makes her the perfect role model for those facing adversity. She represents what can be achieved if you pursue your dreams in spite of your present situation.

Geinor Styles

Eye of the Storm is an uplifting narrative that does not shy away from the difficulties of life but adds splices of humour throughout. The poise and astuteness of Emmie is beautifully contrasted with the lovesick innocence of Lloyd, the cartoonish physicality of Dan Miles making for a truly affectionate character. Along with Keiron Bailey, who is fantastically hilarious as class clown Chris, Miles ensures that laughter is never far away in this production. For all that it deals with bigger issues such as climate change and the effects of austerity, like Pavilion, the real joy of Eye of the Storm is in its shrewd observance of ordinary life. The characters on stage are recognisable, relatable; all the more so to a predominantly Welsh audience who see and hear something of themselves reflected, including in the witticisms and references that season the script with a particularly Welsh flavour.

The script is bolstered by an original soundtrack created by prolific songwriter Amy Wadge. Most recently known for her work on Keeping Faith, here the ethereal, soulful sounds that accompanied Eve Myles and co are nowhere to be found. Instead, country music provides the backdrop to the action on stage. And it complements the narrative really well, offering extra pathos to the character arc of Emmie in particular. ‘Emmie Don’t Say’ is my personal favourite track, not least because Cale and Caitlin McKee (Karen) duet with such gorgeous harmonies, creating a poignant and tear-inducing moment that also represents a neat summary of the character of Emmie. It is a song that will stay with me for some time to come.

Awarded ‘Best Show for Children and Young People’ at the Wales Theatre Awards, such an accolade could lead to some confusion over its target demographic. Indeed, if my motivation to see Eye of the Storm had not come off the back of meeting Rosey Cale in her other guise as an independent singer-songwriter, it is highly likely I would have overlooked it entirely, considering I’m now approaching thirty. It is certainly a show suitable for children and young people but do not mistake Eye of the Storm as a show written exclusively for this age group. It can be enjoyed and appreciated by everyone from 8-98. Indeed, overhearing the feedback as the audience filtered out at the end, it was overwhelmingly positive, from old and young alike. Coming off the back of Pavilion, it certainly made its mark on me. It reignited that spark which I had lost somewhere along the way, returned through seeing something of my own life reflected on stage. Eye of the Storm has been, for me, a reminder of the importance of representation on stage.

Click here for show dates and tickets.

gareth

Series Review, Pili Pala, S4C by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

It is a rare but pleasant site to see North Wales used as the setting for TV drama. The mountains of Snowdonia offered a bleak and stunning backdrop to last year’s hit Hidden. Now, it is Conwy’s green and rugged coast that provides the scenery for Pili Pala. Translated as ‘Butterfly’, this four-part series stars Sian-Reese Williams as Sara Morris, senior consultant in a Fetal Medicine Department. When she agrees to take on her pregnant friend Elin (Fflur Medi Owen) as a patient, it is against the advice of colleagues. Their concern appears to be warranted when it becomes clear that there is a problem with her baby’s growth, resulting in both Sara and Elin facing some difficult decisions that will have significant repercussions.

Sian Reese-Williams (Sara)

Pila Pala may be a slow burner, but it is worth sticking with it. Unlike Keeping Faith, where the drama unfolds out of extraordinary circumstances, here it gradually builds out of the ordinary, the everyday. The first episode may feel slightly pedestrian in pace and tone. However, as the characters make choices in the various moments of their daily lives, it is the consequences that come with them that make this a progressively engaging narrative. In particular, I appreciated the writer Phil Rowlands’ exploration of the personal and professional blurring, on both an ethical and human level, and the interactions, pressures and problems that arise as a result.

It is just a shame that his story was restricted to a mini-series. Its steady build-up of tension and the strains and stresses that are placed on the characters lead to so many different and fascinating strands being produced. Yet they all feel as if they are required to suddenly be tied up in the final episode. Reese-Williams’ performance was beginning to show signs of Eve Myles-like frustration with the situation that her character finds herself in. Instead of being given the space and time to fully explore the ramifications and resultant emotions however, it appeared that (production? budget?) constraints cut short what should have ideally been a 6-8 episode run. It warranted as much. The characters certainly had so much more to give.

Fflur Medi Owen (Elin)

Despite its all-too-brief stint, Pili Pala achieves much. It deals with what might be considered a controversial issue with unashamed ease. It is unafraid to show and explore the impact of high-risk decisions on individuals and their relationships. Sian Reese-Williams is as composed and accomplished as ever. It is refreshing to see Owen Arwyn (Jac) occupy a more sensitive role than the ‘hard man’ we are used to seeing him play. Fflur Medi Owen brings a wealth of nuance and subtlety to Elin. There is certainly nothing wrong with the performances here, only that they haven’t been allowed to flex their acting muscles to their full potential. The momentum that was crafted so brilliantly through the first three episodes seemed to come unstuck in the fourth. Perhaps a second series would solve this. I’m unsure. But S4C must be commended for continuing to invest in original drama. Pili Pala is not a disappointment by any means.

Click here to watch the full series.

gareth

Review, Pavilion, Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Emily White’s Pavilion is a sharp and witty ode to small town Wales. Described as a modern day Under Milk Wood, it is an acute observation of life in a once proud, increasingly hopeless community. Whilst we may read the childhood memories of Dylan Thomas’ days of being ‘young and easy under the apple boughs’ through rose-tinted spectacles now, White’s play is a reminder that for all its sentiment, Thomas’ world was borne out of reality. His poem Fern Hill is as much about the loss of childhood as it is a celebration of it. Pavilion strikes much the same chord.

Set on a Friday night fuelled with booze and infused with lust, we are witness to the final hours of the Pavilion nightclub before it closes down for good. Here is where the ‘hoi polloi’ gather: girls in their ill-fitting dresses and lads in their best-kept trainers and tracky bottoms. They drink, they dance; they dream, they despair. There is laughter and tears, love and loss. Not since Jack Thorne’s Junkyard have I felt such affinity for a cast of characters. They resemble a microcosm of my own home town. White’s great strength in this production has been to create drama out of the mundane, the everyday. She does so through the innocuous language of routine conversation, cadenced with humour and pathos behind which lies a depth of emotion and meaning. It leads to an immediate investment in her characters and their story. They are recognisable, relatable. We see in them something of ourselves and those around us. Theirs is a fully functioning, wholly believable world.

Rebecca Smith-Williams (left), Lowri Hamer (centre), Carly-Sophia Davies (right)

Annelie Powell deserves huge credit for assembling such a fine cast. It features some of the best in both upcoming and established Welsh talent. Director Tamara Harvey is no doubt the reason for the strong onstage chemistry between them. It is becoming a regular feature in her productions. The result is a thoroughly impressive ensemble piece, in which the professional debut of Caitlin Drake goes unchecked such is her striking turn as Myfanwy. Lowri Hamer (Bethan) and Carly-Sophia Davies (Jess) already appear like seasoned actors such is the strength of their performances alongside the reputable Ifan Huw Dafydd (Dewi) and Tim Treloar (Dylan). The dialogue between Michael Geary (Evan) and Victoria John (Big Nell) fizzes off the page. A special mention must go to Ellis Duffy (Gary) who is simply sublime as Gary.

Caitlin Drake as Myfanwy

My one criticism of Pavilion is that can sometimes overstate the nation that it represents. It is undoubtedly a fantastic thing to see Wales portrayed onstage. But the strength of this play lies in its subtlety. It is through realism that White succeeds in creating a strongly-defined Welsh play. There are moments of ethereal transcendence that add a beautiful dimension to the otherwise real-world setting. However, once or twice these scenes verge too close to sentimentality. In particular, the end of act one teeters on the brink of schmaltziness. The giant red dragon that descends as the cast carry out a rendition of ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ may be a dazzling set piece. However, it feels like an unnecessary indulgence in national pride. There is no need for such overt, celebratory statements. Pavilion’s success lies in its tact.

Come the end, the audience sat in stunned silence, the darkness sustained for much longer than I have ever experienced before. This tells you all you need to know about the power of this play. Once you have entered into the world of Pavilion, you won’t want to leave. Emily White deserves the rambunctious applause that finally spilled out into the auditorium. She has freely admitted that with its large cast and herself an unknown writer, Tamara Harvey has taken a huge gamble with Pavilion. It is one that has paid off. It may have taken time for it to see the light of day, but it is now unlikely to be returning to the shelf any time soon.

Click here for tickets and further info

gareth

Review, Cabaret Pontio with Gareth Bonello, Georgia Ruth & Toby Hay, Pontio Arts Centre by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Considering they had never played together before, Gareth Bonello, Georgia Ruth and Toby Hay seemed like a long-established trio. Their first gig as a three-piece was certainly an enjoyable one. Coming together from Cardiff, Ceredigion, and Rhayader respectively, these three folk musicians brought real warmth to what was a pretty wet night in Bangor. With songs inspired by land, place and people, this concert, as part of Pontio’s Cabaret series, was a gently inspiring, fairly lucid affair. Transforming Theatr Bryn Terfel into a downtown night club, the ambient lighting and tight staging made this a really intimate experience. It felt refreshing, relaxed, and played well to a hushed and attentive audience.

Taking the form of a songwriters round, the evening began with Bonello, who performed a straight-up folk number before handing over to Hay. The highly-accomplished guitarist began with a short piece, inspired by home, before providing us with a wonderfully atmospheric version of his song ‘Starlings’. Hitting such high, soft and delicate notes on the guitar, the addition of Ruth’s harp and Bonello on the harmonium created an incredibly visual sound that hung in the air long after the last note was played. It was then over to Ruth for a performance of her song ‘Terracotta’. Its hauntingly beautiful tones struck me as being very reminiscent of 9Bach’s ‘Anian’, and was just as good. It was then the turn of Bonello again for a performance of his song ‘Pen Draw’r Byd’ before we returned to Ruth for what was, for me, one of the highlights of the night. Watching Ruth’s fingers gliding gracefully across the strings of the harp during ‘Clychai Aberdyfi’ was mesmerising. And with Bonello keeping a steady beat on duitara and then double bass respectively, and Hay strumming gently on the guitar, it made this a song to savour, both visually and aurally. To finish the first half, Bonello played a song written as a tribute to his grandmother, who used to pick cockles down by the local river. The low notes of the double bass and deep echo of the electric guitar, along with the yellow lighting, created a truly evocative scene of a river at sunset. It made ‘Merch y Morfa’ a beautiful tune with which to close before the break.

The second half opened up with Bonello performing ‘Y Deryn Pûr’ before handing over to Hay for another double header. Asked by his fellow singers to choose a traditional folk song from his home county to perform, a lack of forthcoming material meant that we were treated to two originals by Hay himself instead, both inspired by his local landscape. The first, ‘Radner Lily’, was gorgeously performed under glowing lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. The gentle grace of the electric guitar and accompanying harp led to a delightful skip into the second song, ‘Water Breaks Its Neck’, from Hay’s forthcoming album. Ruth then performed ‘Week of Pines’ from her latest album to rapturous applause and cheering from the audience – a clear fan favourite. Bonello then treated us to two tunes written specially as part of his PhD on the duitara. This Indian folk instrument proved a fascinating listen on both ‘Maid Marian’ and ‘Diamonds’, the former’s medieval associations really evoked by the sound of this four-stringed cousin of the guitar. It was then back to Hay for a performance of an as-yet-untitled song that I recognised from his recent gig at Focus Wales. It was excellent then, and with the addition of the double bass here, it was by far another standout moment of the night.

To finish, Bonello, Ruth and Hay took to the forefront of the stage to perform off mic. With only the harmonium for company, once Bonello had found the right vocal range, the three performed a gorgeous final number that was received extremely well by the audience. It rounded off an impressive night. They left the audience wanting more. Any nerves they may have been feeling did not show. There was no sense of awkwardness or any hint that this was their first time performing together. And after such a positive reaction, my guess is that it won’t be the last. Keep your eye out for future dates. I’d be surprised if there isn’t more to come.

gareth

Ones To Watch from Focus Wales 2019 by Gareth Williams

Focus Wales in one of the nation’s premier music showcase festivals. Held in Wrexham, it brings together some of the best people in the music industry for three days of talks, meetings, and, of course, musical sets. The best of both emerging and more established talent from Wales and beyond featured on various stages around the town centre. Headliners on Friday night, 9Bach were excellent, as per usual. But apart from these giants of the Welsh folk scene, who else stood out? Here are my personal ‘ones to watch’ from this year’s festival:

Hannah Willwood

Hailing from Snowdonia and currently studying in Leeds, Hannah Willwood and her band created the most incredible sound during their set. Blending jazz, folk and indie, her music is at once familiar yet fresh and unique. With resonances of an earlier era, it is a sound that intrigues, mesmerises, and captivates. This girl is going places.

Katie Mac

If I had to pick a winner for Best Performance at this year’s festival, I would award it to Katie Mac. The singer-songwriter from Huyton played an absolute blinder from start to finish. She delivered such an enthralling set that I became completely absorbed in the experience. Here was a prime example of quality songwriting overlaid with some incredibly accomplished musicianship.

Albert Jones

He proved popular with the Old Bar No.7 crowd. And it wasn’t just his interaction with the audience that made this performer standout. Take a listen to Albert Jones and you will find a vocal that is incredibly soulful and wonderfully versatile. Comparisons with James Morrison are inevitable. But to try and pin down his sound is much more difficult. Whether blues, country, folk or pop, it seems that Jones can turn his hand to anything. A really engaging performer.

The Dunwells

What a stonker of a set from The Dunwells. Full of energy, enthusiasm and real excitement, every song seemed to be a crowd-pleasing anthem. They not only succeeded in winning over a raucous, increasingly drink-fuelled crowd. They managed to encourage some well-judged audience participation that only added to the feel-good factor, rounding off the festival (for me at least) in style.

If God Were a Woman / Beta Test

The inaugural Focus Wales Short Film Festival had an excellent shortlist of eight films. All independent, all made to a high standard, my personal front-runners were If God Were a Woman and Beta Test. The former is a provocative and thought-provoking spoken word from Evrah Rose, made all the more so by the choice of director Joe Edwards to film in a derelict Church. The latter is an American production that is very much in the mould of Black Mirror. It sees Eric Holt enter into a simulated world to relive some of his favourite memories. But then a glitch in the programme leaves him facing much darker stuff.

gareth

Review, Orpheus Descending, A Theatr Clwyd/Menier Chocolate Factory Co-production by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The set design may be far more sedate than in her last production, Home, I’m Darling. But the cast assembled by director Tamara Harvey for her latest offering Orpheus Descending spark off one another with electrifying chemistry. One wonders what she does during the rehearsal process that nurtures such strong unity among cast members, and produces such creative energy that then flows out on stage, with amazing results.

Tamara Harvey

In this adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known plays, Lady and Val might be advertised as the two main characters. But it is very much an ensemble piece, with the most absorbing scenes being those in which a whole host of players feature. Spread across the stage, the dialogue zips from one to another, bouncing around like an entertaining ball game. The script is so sharp and punchy. And the dialect coaching given by Penny Dyer and Nick Trumble only enhances it further. It makes for a very immersive play – the protrusion of the stage to the front row, and the use of the aisles either side of the auditorium, intensifying this experience.

Not to say that there aren’t some amazing individual performances however. Laura Jane Matthewson brings such a delightful humour to her character Dolly Hamma that her mere presence on stage brought a smile to my face. Seth Numrich’s turn as traveller and musician Val is full of charisma. His guitar skills might not be up there with Val’s hero Lead Belly, but Numrich nevertheless has the unenviable ability to own a stage without ever overshadowing his fellow cast members. He is an excellent match for Hattie Morahan, playing opposite him as Lady. Morahan brings a powerful sense of independence to the role that is both frustrated by her marriage to Jabe (Mark Meadows) and teased out through her developing romance with Val. Morahan’s performance grows steadily throughout the play, becoming one that, in many ways, defines the second half.

I reserve special praise for Jemima Rooper, who is nothing short of excellent as Carol Cutrere. The rebel, the rouser; the misfit and the mistress in this portrait of small-town life, Cutrere is such a fascinating character. She is made so by Rooper, who grants her such a vast expanse of unashamed openness that I could only wonder at how Rooper manages to retain a slight air of mystery about her. Yet she does, in spite of her character’s exhibitionism; there remains a hidden depth to her even as her vulnerability and brokenness are so apparent. If Morahan is the star of the second half, Rooper is most certainly the star of the first.

Tamara Harvey’s production makes you wonder why Orpheus Descending has not been produced more regularly. It is perhaps because Harvey has the ability to nurture, and the skill to mine, the best of performances from her actors. In other hands, perhaps it would not be as gripping or as interesting. But it is here, largely because of the evident chemistry that exists between the cast members. One can only credit Harvey with developing that. And it is this which draws out the extra quality that sees such great individual performances, which combine beautifully to create such an excellent overall production.

Click here for more info

gareth

Series Review, Enid a Lucy, S4C by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Writer Siwan Jones blends social realism and surrealist comedy in the most delightful way in Enid a Lucy. The S4C mini-series, which came to a slightly abrupt end on Sunday night, made for an entertaining and enjoyable drama. Termed the ‘Welsh Thelma and Louise’ by some, Eiry Thomas and Mabli Jên Eustace certainly provide plenty of laughs as the two leads whose offbeat road trip takes them from Llanelli to London via the most unconventional of routes.

The drama begins on a modest housing estate in Llanelli where we meet next door neighbours Enid (Thomas) and Lucy (Jên). Enid is a piano teacher whose home is neat and tidy, fitted with mod cons and well lit. Meanwhile, Lucy lives in a dark, dank and messy space. The drained colour palette of the cinematography, as well as the use of handheld camera, gives the impression that this is going to be a gritty, class-based drama. The introduction of Lucy’s drunken and abusive boyfriend Denfer (Steffan Cennydd), in contrast with the genteel and traditional images of the Mother’s Union that Enid is involved in, only serves to underline the divide that exists between them. Yet early indications that this is going to be a serious piece of realist drama are confounded by the end of the first episode when Enid turns getaway driver for Lucy in order to escape the hapless Denfer and his buffoon of an uncle, Sid (Nicholas McGaughey). What follows is a random and raucous cat-and-mouse chase across the country as the men seek to reclaim a holdall containing drugs and a gun from Lucy, who is determined to use the contents in order to make a better life for her and her baby.

Siwan Jones’ script plays like a melody that is pitched just below hard-hitting but doesn’t quite decrescendo into absolute farce. It manages to deal with some big issues, such as childlessness and mental health, but these never feel forced. Neither are they allowed to consume the overall narrative, Jones ensuring that the escapades of Enid and Lucy are filled with much hilarity and randomness. This includes perhaps the most comical scene of the series, where two farmers that they end up staying with accidently take some of the drugs in the holdall. Actors Ifan Huw Dafydd and Rhodri Evan really let loose their inner zombie to produce a very funny scene. It borders on the ridiculous but never descends into the realms of the unbelievable. It is this kind of accurate measurement which Jones must be applauded for in the writing of Enid a Lucy.

My only bone of contention with this drama was the finale. It was as if a timer had suddenly gone off with five minutes to go and all the loose ends had to be tied up tout suite. It left me feeling rather out-of-kilter; that such a well-paced journey should end so abruptly. Although not quite on the same level as the conclusion to BBC1’s The Replacement (2017), it nevertheless conjured up similar feelings. It is a shame because, otherwise, Enid a Lucy is a great drama, with particularly notable performances from Eiry Thomas and Mabli Jên Eustace. Thomas, in particular, slips into her character with ease here; in contrast to her over-exaggerated performance as the detective in Keeping Faith, she is completely believable as Enid. She is a joy to watch, especially during her exchanges with Eustace: the two bounce off one another wonderfully.

It is great to see S4C, via producers Boom Cymru, giving a prime-time platform to female writers at the start of 2019. Both Fflur Dafydd (35 Awr) and now Siwan Jones have provided Welsh audiences with some quality TV drama already this year. Enid a Lucy may have only received a short run, but it was fun whilst it lasted. Its slightly left-field style follows on from some of Jones’ previous work – not least 2011’s Alys – but it still feels highly original. It would have been great to have spent longer with these characters. Despite its rather hasty end though, Enid a Lucy still manages to thoroughly entertain.

Watch the series on S4C’s Clic here.

gareth

Review: Merched Caerdydd/ Nos Sadwrn o Hyd, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (Using the Sibrwd App)

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Take four actors, three chairs, three sets of neon lights, and one stage, and what do you get? Two new plays conceived for the 2018 National Eisteddfod now touring the country with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru (TGC). Both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd are making their way from North to South, beginning in Mold and ending where they are set – in Cardiff. And thanks to TGC’s Sibrwd app, it could be said that these are the most accessible Welsh-language plays yet.

The Sibrwd app is a simple concept, designed to guide non-Welsh speakers and Welsh learners through the performance. Until now, it has provided audio synopses during plays, to help those not fluent in the language understand the gist of the narrative being played out on stage. When I arrive for this tour however, the app has undergone a significant change. For the first time, TGC, and the app’s operator Chris Harris, are providing audiences with a full translation of the dialogue. Think surtitles at the opera but on your phone. Ingenious you might think. And to some extent it works. But I’m not entirely convinced.

The main problem that I encountered was being drawn away from the action on stage in order to understand some of the dialogue being spoken. As a Welsh learner whose proficiency level floats somewhere between Intermediate and Advanced, this wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been. I was able to grasp a general understanding of the narrative and the characters’ stories without needing to refer to the app too much. However, if I wanted to understand a particular word or phrase, it became difficult not to disengage from the play in order to seek out the translation amongst the bulk of text being shown on my screen. In one sense, I can see how this would suit a non-Welsh speaker or beginner better – they could easily follow along and not miss a trick. The transitions between each piece of dialogue on the app flowed seamlessly. The problem is that they would then be likely to miss out on one of the primary thrills of theatre: live performance. It is as much about the action on stage as it is about the dialogue being spoken. What both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd have are strong, powerful and engaging performances by a hugely talented cast. They bring such immersive and intimate details to their characters through their physicality and movement as well as their emotion and vocals. But this could be missed if one is concentrating too much on reading in English what is being said ‘yn Gymraeg’.

This balance between the aural and the visual is a tricky one to maintain when one of those requires translation. The more translation needed, the harder it becomes to maintain a kind of equilibrium. Without prior experience of the app in its audio descriptive form, I cannot say with any confidence which style is better to enable non-speaking and/or learning audiences to engage most fully in Welsh-language theatre. I suspect that from my own position, an audio option would be preferable (particularly if it offers a synopsis, rather than the whole script). I could then maintain my focus on the stage rather than being drawn down to look at my screen. The main benefit to this, in my opinion, would be that you remain engaged in the production as a whole. To be so engrossed in the stories being told by writers Catrin Dafydd (Merched Caerdydd) and Roger Williams (Nos Sadwrn o Hyd) respectively is to be made more open to being challenged and moved by their messages; more vulnerable to empathy and emotion.

Both Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd are fascinating pieces of theatre. Whilst the former focuses on three women and the significant choices that they have to make at an important juncture in their lives, the latter concentrates its attention on Lee, a gay man whose blossoming relationship is disturbed by an act of violence that threatens his life. Performed as a series of monologues (interweaving in the case of Merched Caerdydd), the simple set and subtle use of lighting and sound help plunge the audience into the increasingly messy and fraught situations of the characters’ lives. We cannot help but become entangled in their relational quandaries and bodily vulnerabilities. The sharp focus of Merched Caerdydd on sex, love and relationships feels very relevant, particularly with its themes of control and power. Meanwhile, the mixture of humour and heartbreak, sweetness and violence found in Nos Sadwrn o Hyd, portrayed so eloquently by Sion Ifans, makes for a fraught and funny hour. It cannot be underestimated how important, how needed – these stories are.

Sion Ifan

Despite them being unrelated, both Dafydd’ and Williams’ plays seem to complement one another well. They are but a small snapshot of the strength and depth of talent coming through in Welsh-language playwriting. I find it interesting that both feel somehow connected to their own language and place – the feeling that these would not have come out of, or would at least have been conceived differently in, an Anglicised context. To give non-Welsh speakers and learners the opportunity to access and engage with these worlds through the Sibrwd app then feels important. In its current form, Sibrwd enables that to an extent. What is exciting about the app is that it remains in the relatively early stages of its development. Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru should be commended for testing and experimenting with live audiences and being genuinely open to their feedback. Give it time, and give it chance, and I think that this app will become a significant tool, not least in opening up Welsh-language plays to a wider and broader audience. That can only be a good thing for plays like Merched Caerdydd and Nos Sadwrn o Hyd. For these are stories that need to be told, and experienced by as many people as possible.

For more info and tickets, click here.

gareth

Series Review, 35 Awr, s4c by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Exasperated by BBC1 Wales’ Pitching In? Thankfully, it is now the exception to the rule when it comes to contemporary Welsh television drama. What would have once been seen as a godsend – alleviating the problem of non-representation, if only briefly – is now seen as an affront to the people of Wales. We’re better than this. The last few years has seen an explosion of Welsh drama. Not only in the number of series’, but in the quality of these series’ too. From Hinterland to Bang, Parch to Keeping Faith, there has never been a better time for Welsh-set, Welsh-made drama. A Golden Age, as I’ve been inclined to call it.

At the start of 2019, there is another drama to be added to this growing roster: 35 Awr. Fflur Dafydd’s new series sees a 12-person jury assemble after a court case to consider their verdict. But finding the defendant guilty or not guilty of murder proves far less straight-forward than some were expecting. And when it comes to light that they could be in danger if allowed home, they are taken to a local hotel for their protection, until they can come to a decision. But not all is as it seems.

Across this 8-part series, the lives of these characters begin to slowly, tentatively, and intriguingly unfold. As they do, Dafydd begins to entangle them in a dark and sinister web. Connections are made, alliances formed; the power play between the different characters is always fascinating, never simple. The game of poker in episode three becomes the perfect metaphor for this psychological murder mystery. Even where their conversations seem mundane, or rather superfluous, one need only dig a little deeper, beneath the surface, to discover the ulterior motives, selfish motivations, and hidden desires at play. These aren’t always obvious at first. Which is what keeps the drama interesting. Dafydd slowly feeds us with tit-bits of information; now and again she surprises us with a big reveal. Such revelations come at steady intervals throughout; gradually increasing the tension, which bubbles gently until the final episode when it finally boils over, with pulsating twists and numerous turns.

It is the intimate characterisation which makes Fflur Dafydd’s scripts always so enjoyable. To see the characters of 35 Awr brought to life in such fine detail, and with such fascinating complexity, by the ensemble cast was a real treat. From the awful masculinity of Carwyn Jones’ Peredur to the nonchalant behaviour of Gillian Elisa’s Val (to name but two), Dafydd succeeds in creating a memorable set of well-rounded characters that become instantly recognisable long after the programme is over. Indeed, the excellent editing of Dafydd Hunt and the cinematography of Alwyn Hughes helps to give this drama a look that feels fresh and original even as it employs fairly standard techniques and tropes. This is no easy feat. Yet, somehow, they manage to do so; perhaps, in part, down to Dafydd’s original screenplay.

If you’re looking for a darker, more subversive murder mystery than your typical Agatha Christie, then 35 Awr should satisfy your needs. In fact, it should exceed them, for it is also much more than that. Part psychological thriller, part crime drama; it contains as much humour as it does menace. Writer Fflur Dafydd has assembled a fine cast of characters whose personal lives slowly seep out and intertwine with one another, creating a gripping narrative which culminates in a superbly arresting final episode. This is what great Welsh drama is. It is no longer defined by the likes of Pitching In. Pitching In is now the exception. Fflur Dafydd’s 35 Awr represents the rule.

Click here to watch the series now.

gareth

Review, the dark, fuel theatre/ovalhouse co-production, at pontio by gareth williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Everyone has a story to tell. The Dark is Nick Makoha’s story. His is a story of a childhood journey from his home in Uganda to the UK. It is a journey across a country that is under siege and extremely dangerous. It is a journey of survival, on a minibus bound for the border. It is a journey of a mother who desires a better life for her son. It is witty. It is thought-provoking. At times, it feels terribly real. As Makoha himself says, it puts ‘a face to the polarising words of refugee and immigrant’.

Featuring Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry in multiple roles, The Dark immerses you in the Ugandan culture of the 1970s. The brutality and oppressiveness of the Idi Amin regime is felt throughout. Yet this play is ultimately about the colourful characters whom Makoha and his mother meet along the way. Balogun and Henry inject such vibrancy into these people. They transition seamlessly between the different characters. It never gets confusing as to who they are portraying. Such transitioning is made even more natural by the excellent use of lighting, as well as their movement around the stage.

The set is simple enough. It features a cluster of chairs underneath a massive overhang filled with boxes and bags. This is clearly the minibus (or ‘mutatu’ in local parlance). In addition, an OHP screen and projector are to one side, keeping us updated on the times and locations of the journey. We also get to see some personal photographs of Makoha’s which flit onto the screen now and again. They act as a gentle and sobering reminder that what we are witnessing is a reconstruction of real events. This is what makes the final scenes in particular all the more powerful.

Although engaging throughout, it is in the final quarter of an hour that The Dark really grips you. With the border now well and truly in sight, the young Makoha and his mother have soldiers hot on their tail. But just as the chance of escape beckons, his mother must make a life-changing decision. It is incredibly tense. Positively gripping. But what makes it even more powerful come the end is the subsequent reaction of the UK border official towards the young Makoha. This final scene left me feeling frustrated and rather angry. And I think that’s what Makoha the writer is looking for. He wants to shake us out of our complacency. To remind us of the responsibility we have towards those who have had little choice but to leave their country of origin because of war and conflict. As such, The Dark is a timely play whose message we would do well to heed.

Nick Makoha

The Dark is Nick Makoha’s story. It is an important story for our time. It may have been made even more powerful if it immersed the audience into its world via the seats on stage. That’s where I felt I should be, compelled, as I was, by the performances of Balogun and Henry to join them on this journey. As it was, this one-act play still made an impact on me in the way that I think it was meant to. I just hope that it is seen by much bigger audiences than witnessed it here in North Wales. It is pertinent. A story that is much needed. There is a power and importance to this individual’s story that cannot be underestimated.

Click here to visit Fuel Theatre’s website.

gareth