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, Parch, S4C by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

Last Sunday evening, I spent a good ten minutes with my hand firmly placed over my mouth. In the final episode of S4C drama series Parch, there was such an unexpected twist that I simply hadn’t seen coming. In my own words, ‘Well, that was a bombshell and a half’. To think that this is it, that we will no longer be following the crazy and chaotic life of the Reverend Myfanwy Elfed, is more than a little sad. Yet writer and creator Fflur Dafydd has reached the conclusion that this is a good time to say farewell to this most lovable of protagonists. It’s a little frustrating. Carys Eleri has brought such warmth and wit to her character that it has always been a pleasure to share in her company of a Sunday evening. But if she must go, then she has gone in the most beautifully tragic of ways. It felt like Dafydd always knew how this series was going to end. It made the final scenes no less surprising though. And for someone who has journeyed with Myfanwy through all three series, the emotional impact of this final section certainly hit hard.

It is only retrospectively looking back at the narrative arc of the main character that you begin to see the full artistic vision of Fflur Dafydd for Parch. As such, although gutted that this is the end of the road, I applaud her for having the conviction to draw a natural line in the sand and stick to it. So many TV drama series’ these days have a tendency to drag on a bit too long, remaining on our screens on the basis of their initial commercial success. What would have been the right time to stop is made into a springboard in an attempt to give fans more of what they love. Yet for so many it is like carrying on after reaching the edge of a cliff. Few fly. Many fall. As a result, I’m rather glad that Dafydd has refused to bow to the desires of people like me who want to see Parch continue. Instead, it will remain an ever-affectionate drama in my mind rather than a hoped-for return to a glorious past. Not that the series has to end due to Myfanwy’s absence. It is testament to the strength of Fflur Dafydd’s writing that, over the course of these three series, the focus has been as much on the other characters as the cleric of the title. As such, although initially a contemporary representation of a female priest within the Church in Wales, the series has also seen a broader focus on the trials and tribulations of the Elfed family and those around them. We have been involved as much with Gwenlli (Non Haf) and her struggles with her sexuality, for example, as we have been with Myfanwy and her faith. This final series, in particular, has been such an enjoyable watch in part due to Dafydd’s ability to hold the various storylines onscreen together. She has woven romance, mystery, fantasy, and family drama together so brilliantly that, in the end, it has become an ensemble piece. But, ultimately, it would be odd to continue in her absence. Even if she were to be like the ghostly visions that have accompanied her throughout the series’, somehow it wouldn’t be the same. In the end, Fflur Dafydd has made the right decision to bring Parch to a close.

Parch is another example of the high quality television drama that is currently being produced in Wales. As I’ve said recently, I think this is something a golden age for Welsh television drama. Having watched it alongside Keeping Faith, I can honestly say that Parch ranks just as highly in my view. It may not have won the plaudits that Keeping Faith has, but it has shown a quiet strength, epitomised by Carys Eleri’s performance. Whilst Eve Myles showcased her bold and brash physicality in Keeping Faith, Eleri has brought a humorous vigour and subtle power to her character in Parch. In doing so, she leaves behind an indelible mark of a veracious female lead who will be sorely missed.

So thank you, Fflur Dafydd. You may have left me in tears at the end, but the past three series have been a joy to watch. Parch will be missed.

Series Review, Keeping Faith, BBC Wales by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

Having just watched the final episode of Keeping Faith on BBC Wales, I’m asking myself: Is this a golden age for Welsh television drama? Hinterland was critically-acclaimed. Bang featured in the national press. Gwaith/Cartref continues to be a marker for quality Welsh-language drama. Parch has just entered its third series. And Craith will be broadcast in the English language later this year as Hidden. It appears that one cannot move for drama made in Wales. And it’s about time too. Gone are the days when S4C was presumed to be solely for first-language Welsh speakers. Once, BBC Wales-backed dramas were so few and far between that their broadcast almost felt like a national event. Now, subtitles are no longer a barrier, in large part thanks to the phenomenal success of The Killing. Meanwhile, BBC Wales will be following up Keeping Faith with Hidden later this year.

Of course, quantity does not automatically mean quality. However, in the case of the above, quality most certainly matches the output. In terms of Keeping Faith, this has not only been reflected in its incredible cast of Welsh actors but in the gripping storyline and its atmospheric soundtrack. So, if you haven’t managed to catch it yet, here are three reasons why you should go to BBC iPlayer and download the series:

Eve Myles

Fans of Torchwood and Broadchurch will already know the brilliance of Eve Myles. Personally, I’ve run out of superlatives to describe her acting skills. Here, she plays the lead character Faith, wife to Evan (Bradley Freegard), mother to three children, and a lawyer in her husband’s family firm. One Wednesday morning, her life is turned upside-down when Evan leaves home and disappears without trace. Over the course of the next eight episodes, we see this strong, no-nonsense woman face the most challenging emotional, professional and personal pressures of her life. In doing so, Myles produces a character of incredible complexity with seeming simplicity. She manages to wholly embody her character and, as such, Faith’s every expression is drenched in meaning. There is a moment in episode two, for instance, when her vacant stare manages to reveal a plethora of internal emotion. We see her frustration, pain, anger, sadness and confusion all packed tightly into that single expression. Only the best actors can convey so much through doing so little. This is not to say that Myles’ natural physicality does not also enhance the strength of her performance. There is a wonderful moment in episode six, in the boardroom of the law firm, where Faith’s frustration and joy is brilliantly conveyed through the movement of Myles. In this same episode, when Faith is in conversation with Gael Reardon (Angeline Bell), Myles moves so quickly from a smile to a frown that it adds a light humour to the serious nature of the circumstances. In so doing, we learn so much about her character. It is these small moments, in which so much is communicated, that make this such a standout performance. She really is one of the best actresses of her generation.

The Music of Amy Wadge

Alongside Eve Myles, the music has got to be the star of this show. It is beautifully constructed, weaving in and out of the series like the ripples of water in the opening titles. Written, composed and performed by Amy Wadge, it is gorgeous in its simplicity and captivating in its tone. It is a bit of a coup to land a woman who has written songs for some of the biggest stars in the music industry (Ed Sheeran and Kacey Musgraves among them). Yet her star quality is surely what elevates this soundtrack to become a powerful narrator within the series. Wadge has clearly spent time with the character of Faith, connecting so deeply with the character’s emotions that at times the music speaks what no dialogue could. As such, it perfectly complements Myles’ performance, even enhancing it at times. Before going out to buy the soundtrack however, I would recommend a listen to the Welsh translation, sung by Ela Hughes. If you like the originals, you will love these Welsh-language versions.

The Story

Keeping Faith is first and foremost a drama about family. The mystery of Evan’s disappearance may be the hook, but the central focus is on the family. To this end, Matthew Hall has enabled the series to steer the course of eight episodes without ever overstretching the plot twists or exhausting the narrative threads. It enables us to remain intrigued by the disappearance of Evan whilst giving us a fully formed world of characters all with secrets of their own. As a result, the central mystery becomes laced with other mysteries as the web of family affairs widens. It is not only the marriage of Faith and Evan that is put under the microscope, but those of Tom and Marion (Evan’s parents) and Terry and Bethan (Evan’s sister) too. Add a cast of corrupt police officers, a criminal underworld and a client that has feelings for Faith and there is no shortage of action. All that is left is to give a nod to some of the cast for bringing Hall’s intriguing narrative to life so vividly, among them Mark Lewis Jones (Stella), Aneurin Hughes (Hinterland) and Matthew Gravelle (Broadchurch).

What do you think? Is this a golden age for Welsh drama? And what are among your favourites? Answers on a postcard (or in the comments below).

C2C: Country to Country Festival 2018, 5 UK Country Music Acts to Watch by Gareth Williams

For most people, country music evokes images of Stetsons, cowboy boots and the deserts of the Deep South. And though these are perfectly legitimate symbols, this increasingly popular genre is a whole lot more diverse than one might ordinarily assume. To gain some understanding of how broad a church this music really is, I would recommend a visit to the annual C2C: Country to Country Festival which takes place at the O2 Arena in London. Here, you will find an incredible range of sounds that might seem completely opposite to one another and yet, in the world of country music, sit happily alongside each other in perfect harmony. There is no better example of this than from this year’s event, which I have recently returned from. Within a couple of hours on Sunday night, there featured mod-inspired rock, gospel-infused folk, and bass-laden pop. In no other genre would you get such an array of musical styles playing to the same enthusiastic audience, one after the other. Yet this is the joy of country music. It embraces almost every musical style. The only necessary ingredient is good storytelling.

Country music is a genre that is growing in popularity on both sides of the pond. But its rise in Britain has been especially notable in the last couple of years. Many point to the emergence of The Shires as the starting point for the growing interest here. Indeed, their debut single Nashville (Grey Skies) resulted in my own conversion to country. Whether it began before then, there is little doubt that their subsequent success has opened a door for British country music artists, and the success of C2C has further demonstrated a huge appetite for the genre. Having attended the event for the first time last weekend, it was so pleasing to see and hear the quality of the British acts on show. Don’t get me wrong, the Main Stage concerts, featuring the big stars of American country, were incredible. Yet I was especially excited by the range and wealth of talent on show from this side of the Atlantic. To this end, I would recommend any number of review sites to read about the fabulous talent that was on show from across the pond. Here, I simply want to highlight five British country music acts in particular that I think you should look out for in the coming weeks and months:

Elles Bailey

Bristol-based Elles Bailey combines rock, blues and country to create a mature, soulful sound. Her high-energy performance went down a storm on the Big Entrance stage. Touring to smaller venues around the UK and Europe, be sure to check her out. You are sure to be thoroughly entertained.

Katy Hurt

Soaked in country music from a young age, Katy Hurt is now maturing into one of the UK’s finest singer/songwriters. With a debut album on the way, these are exciting times for this young female artist who is a great advocate for country music here in the UK.

Clara Bond

Having discovered Clara Bond during my early forays into Twitter, I was already well acquainted with her music before seeing her play live on the Busking stage at the weekend. Her debut EP Out of Towners is a brilliant record, full of country pop vibes and catchy lyrics. She is definitely one of my top female UK country music artists to listen to.

The Adelaides

If you love the gorgeous harmonies of Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas then The Adelaides are sure to be your thing. These three girls create such beautiful melodies and have such a sweet rapport on stage. Be warned though. You’ll never look at jelly babies in the same way again after their song of the same name…

Twinnie

Why hasn’t this lady released an album yet?! With vocals to rival that of Imelda May and a sparkling personality to boot, Twinnie is surely going to be a major breakthrough act at some point in the near future. A Yorkshire lass with a dry wit and a soulful sound, I think it’s fair to say that she’s the Kate Rusby of the country music world.

These guys are just a small selection of the fabulous talent that is emerging on the UK country music scene. Exciting times are ahead, of that there is no doubt!

Review, Great Expectations, Tilted Wig & Malvern Theatres at Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

(3 / 5)

To be familiar with a narrative can sometimes evoke the desire for a fresh perspective. Yet even as one anticipates the events of a classic literary text such as Great Expectations, another member of the audience might be encountering it for the first time. Therefore, ideally, the adaptation must stay true to the original whilst offering something unique. To this end, I would say that Tilted Wig Productions have done a fine job in breathing new life into one of Charles Dickens’ most famous stories. And they have done this particularly well through the use of music, costume and set design.

For my companion, this would be his third theatre production of Great Expectations. This, alongside the viewing of many film and TV adaptations from down the years (his particular favourite being the 1989 production, which notably starred Anthony Hopkins as Magwitch), obliged me to ask for his humble opinion after the show. One of the most striking features for him -indeed for me too – was the simplicity of the set. Compromising a three-dimensional, metal-framed box, with a wooden-slatted wall across the back, and two sloping platforms to the front and right, this was a very basic stage. One of the advantages of such a rudimentary set-up was that it enabled the fluid movement of the actors. Another advantage was the ability to transition seamlessly between scenes. It is no mean feat to take on a narrative of such scope, with its broad array of settings, and recreate such different worlds in such a limited space. With the creative use of lighting, director Sophie Boyce Couzens and her team manage to do so, and with seemingly relative ease. We were both mightily impressed by the scale of this production.

One of the shows that this production evoked for me was the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre. In some senses, Great Expectations was essentially a miniature version of this. Both the set and the use of folk music are employed in similar ways, but on a much smaller scale in Great Expectations. Yet the quality is on a similar par. In terms of folk music, there may only be one musician in the cast of Great Expectations, but composer and performer Ollie King manages to evoke such realism with his accordion that no further instrumentation is needed. With a few simple notes, he creates an atmosphere, evokes a setting, and produces an emotion. It is an incredible skill for which he deserves all recognition. Alongside King’s music, there were also some interesting sound effects produced by the other actors, using a plethora of everyday objects shelved on one side of the set. These diegetic additions wonderfully complimented the action on stage, adding to the atmosphere and setting brilliantly. Again, simplicity was a striking feature in the use of sound. And for this production, simplicity becomes a mark of its quality.

Finally, I would like to nod handsomely to the costume makers. With most of the actors playing multiple parts, the choice of a base layer of clothing for each of them, onto which one or two items can be slipped on and off at each turn, allows for maximum flexibility, contributing to the seamless transition between scenes that I have already noted. Moreover, the transformation of Pip (Sean Aydon) from a blacksmith’s apprentice to young gentleman of the city is profoundly simple. It requires only the buttoning up of his jacket, the addition of a coat, top hat and bag, to completely change the character’s social class. I couldn’t believe the effectiveness of such minimal changes. The piece de resistance however, has to be the wedding dress of Miss Havisham (Nichola McAuliffe). It is glorious in its tapestry, magical in its setting, and beautifully faded to reflect the character’s frozenness in time. It perfectly matches the commanding and slightly offbeat performance of McAuliffe. Considering the anticipation that came with this – Miss Havisham is my favourite character in Great Expectations, and one of my favourites in Dickens’ collection – it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Overall, Tilted Wig Productions, in association with Malvern Theatres, have produced an adaptation of Great Expectations that is marked by simplicity. Yet this simplicity is not akin to low quality. The set may be basic, but it allows the actors a freedom to creatively engage in storytelling. The music may be stripped back, but it evokes atmosphere and emotion incredibly well. The costumes may be simple, but the ability to transform characters by the drop of a hat or the fitting of a jacket is extraordinary. They manage to achieve so much by keeping it so simple. It makes for a beautiful adaptation that finds that wealth is not the maker of a show. Instead, with a little bit of ingenuity, it is love that creates something truly special.

Click here for more info and tickets.

Review, The Weir, Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

Whilst on holiday in Ireland a couple of years ago, a visit to the low-lying valley of Glendalough found us walking through the stone ruins of a monastery. On this particular day, the mist had come down. There was rain in the air. For a popular tourist destination, there were few people around. It was still. It was quiet. There was something about the place that gave off a mystical, otherworldly vibe. It is little wonder then that belief in the supernatural is a prominent feature in Irish storytelling. It is certainly a fixture in the stories told by the characters in The Weir. The Mercury Theatre, in a co-production with English Touring Theatre, has decided to revive Conor McPherson’s play to mark its 20th anniversary. It is a decision which should be celebrated, not only because of the exceptional quality of the script but because it speaks some important truths into contemporary society.

The audience is invited into a small town pub in rural Ireland where we are witness to the folkloric tales and ghostly stories of a couple of regulars. They are prompted to delve into the art of storytelling by a newcomer to the village. Beneath such paranormal content however, lies a much deeper and darker level of human thought and emotion. As the stories open up to reveal dark and unsettling truths, it prompts this female stranger to share a secret from her past. She has a story of her own, and its truth will shake them all. So disconcerting are the stories that they tell, several members of the audience (at least around me) clearly felt the need to react in the form of whispered commentary to neighbours or the placement of a hand over a mouth. Such audience reaction was clearly in relation to the stories, yet such impact is as much down to the delivery of these stories as their content. In this respect, much applause must go to the actors on stage. In particular, Sean Murray (Jack) was so captivatingly brilliant that one could have heard a pin-drop inside the auditorium. A large slice of recognition must also go to the production team, particularly Madeleine Girling (Designer) and lighting designers Lee Curran and Dara Hoban. To present a cross-section of the pub, where the lines between the stage and the stalls were blurred, I found, had the effect of assuming the audience as part of the action. We were, in effect, sat inside with these people, the attentive listeners to their gripping narratives. As each story was told, the gradual reduction of light caused an acute focus which made such attentiveness all the more palpable. It also created an atmosphere that became increasingly eerie and unnerving, culminating with the actors speaking under a single spotlight, and accompanied by the occasional single sharp note of a violin. Truly engrossing.

One of the fascinating elements of McPherson’s play, from a contemporary perspective, is the impact of a female presence upon the typically-masculine world of the boozer. It is clear that Brendan, the pub’s owner, has not had to bother accommodating for a female visitor for some time. He has to dash through to his living quarters to source a bottle of wine, then has to promptly serve it in a pint glass, and later must announce that the women’s toilets don’t work. This haphazard, unaccommodating state of events is taken humorously by the audience, yet despite these light-hearted observational moments, much like the character’s stories, there is also a deeper level of social commentary that speaks to the ongoing problem of gender inequality evident in traditionally male-dominated institutions. It is fascinating to see the subtle and gradual shift that takes place in these men once Valerie (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) has entered their midst. Themes of loneliness, fear and loss start to come to the surface in a less-mediated way. Vulnerability and emotional capacity open up. Suddenly, there is a glimpse of raw reality. The masculine ideal begins to crack. It is subtly powerful stuff.

If you want to be entertained, challenged, moved, and inspired then The Weir will certainly tick all of those boxes, and more. It combines pathos and humour exceedingly well. It invites the audience to inhabit its world and become utterly engrossed in its content. The stories told may be unsettling but they are gripping too. The cast excel in creating an intimate atmosphere that draws the listener in and has them hanging on every word, helped by the inspired set design and excellent use of lighting. It reminds you of the simple power of oral storytelling. So step away from your screen. Turn those electronic devices off. And experience the thrill of immediate, live storytelling.

https://www.theatrclwyd.com/en/whats-on/the-weir/

Gareth Williams

Review, Wild Silence, The Wandering Hearts by Gareth Williams

(5 / 5)

Following on from the success of The Shires, The Wandering Hearts are surely the next big breakthrough act in the world of British Country Music. On the evidence of their debut album, Wild Silence, it would be hard to argue otherwise. The recipients of the ‘Best Emerging Artist’ at last week’s Americana Awards have produced something of incredible scope. Here are twelve tracks that seamlessly flow into one another – a musical river of harmonies carving its way through a landscape of various genres and musical arrangements. The inclusion of such a vast array of influences into their songs could so easily have gone wrong. Yet far from a cacophony of sounds, here we have an album that triumphs in the audio equivalent of cocktail making. It shakes together a number of musical ingredients to create a drink bursting with flavour. Such a diverse recipe – including folk, rock, pop, country, and bluegrass – in the wrong hands, has the potential to be a disaster. Yet The Wandering Hearts have created something that packs an authentically tasty punch. It is an incredible and delicious sound.

This four-piece group are far from one-trick ponies. The album takes us on a journey through a soundscape that twists and turns at regular intervals. It is not only between each song, but within each song too, that such changing of musical direction and pace takes place. Opening track “Rattle”, for instance, begins with the floating harmonies of Tara Wilcox and Tim Prottey-Jones. Then, with a single drumbeat, the gravelly tones of AJ Dean-Revington are introduced and we are suddenly exposed to heavily-laden rock. The switch from one style to another is unexpected. Yet it is far from disjointed or off-putting.  Similarly, “Laid into the Ground” begins as a sea shanty before rising to a crescendo of electronic rock. Again, it is unexpected, but surprising alluring. It seems that The Wandering Hearts have refused to sacrifice their multifarious influences in favour of one over all others. Instead, they have sought to incorporate all of them to one degree or another. As a result, it makes for a hugely enjoyable album that defies categorisation.

An inability to generically label The Wandering Hearts makes it hard to offer up comparisons. However, as I listened to Wild Silence, I couldn’t help thinking of Rend Collective. Both band’s albums are of an eclectic nature, and there is a definite similarity between the vocals of their female leads. There is also an ethereal quality to Wild Silence that is produced in a similar way to that found on the albums of Wildwood Kin and The Pierces. In all of these cases, it is the vocal harmonies of their members that manage to evoke such a transcendent sound. Certainly, during the title track for instance, I found that I was transported out of myself somehow. Not so much ‘our only sound’ as a holy sound.

I cannot speak highly enough of The Wandering Hearts. They have produced a stunning first album that deserves to be lauded with every award going. Wild Silence blends together an assortment of styles to create something that is distinct and hugely enjoyable. It is certainly my new favourite thing. Whether you’re a lover of the great outdoors or someone who loves to party on a Friday night, you are sure to find something that fits your mood here. Wild Silence is a musical selection box, full of tasty treats. I urge you to go and unwrap it now, and experience its beautiful, almost sacred, sounds.

Click here to visit their website

Review, Early Man by Gareth Williams

(3 / 5)

Some say there’s nothing better than football on a Saturday. And when you’re able to watch it from the warmth and comfort of your local cinema, I’m inclined to agree. It certainly beats a wet and windy afternoon sat shivering in the stands of The Racecourse in Wrexham. As a supporter of the current National League table-toppers (up the Reds!), I’m used to cheering on the underdog. So the situation in the film Early Man is one I’m very familiar with. In the latest offering from director Nick Park and his Aardmann crew, we find the plucky cavemen of the Stone Age taking on the might of the Bronze Age. It is Manchester City versus Ashton Town – the magic of the FA Cup on the big screen. Here, the non-league minnows are represented by the lovable Doug (Eddie Redmayne) and his motley crew of rabbit hunters. Having lived peacefully in their idyllic forest, they are suddenly forced to flee to the barren edges of the Badlands thanks to the heavyweight machinery of Lord Nooth (voiced by an unrecognisable Tom Hiddleston). He has come to mine their land for precious metal, and nothing is going to stand in his way. In the face of such a threat, Doug has no choice but to challenge the rich governor to a winner-takes-all encounter. And in typical Aardmann style, the battle in question is unashamedly British. No blood-and-gore violence here. This fight will be settled through ‘The Beautiful Game’.

As I’ve come to expect from the films of Nick Park, I had a smile across my face from beginning to end. The opening scene was typical of the nuanced British humour that is laced throughout the film. Understated, quirky, clever – I have no other descriptions, other than a comparison with the genius of Monty Python. Once or twice, there were elements that completely matched the best of their absurdity, and had me close to tears (of laughter, I hasten to add) as a result. Children will love the slapstick nature and musical sequences. Adults will titter at the more mature references that pepper the script. But no matter what the age bracket, one cannot fail to appreciate the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into the set. The establishing shot of the forest is one such moment. The colours are bold and bright; the shrubbery is expertly detailed. It completely overwhelms you. Welcome to the magic and realism of Aardmann’s work. The witty and observant characterisations only add to this production’s quality. The voiceovers were all well-chosen and seemed a natural fit for the characters onscreen. I didn’t find myself playing ‘Guess the Celebrity’ as I do with some animations. Instead, I was immersed in the story enough so as not to get too distracted by the recognisable dialects (though who can fail to invest a bit too much attention in the nasally tones of Richard Ayoade).

If I had to describe this film, it would be as ‘an ode to English football’. On one level, it could rightly be seen as a commentary on the state of the modern game. There are the overpaid professional stars, the extortionate entrance fees, and the huge stadium. There is even a very comical take on VAR, which I thought was a stroke of genius (whether intended or not). On the other hand, it is a tribute to that most working-class of sports. The have-a-go attitude of Doug and his Stone Age companions, along with their lack of resources and makeshift training facilities, is a representation of those in the lower reaches of the English football pyramid. Here is where the raw love, passion and commitment for the game are truly seen, far from the bright lights and big money of the Premier League. No wonder we cheer them on here.

For the football fan, Early Man is a reminder of football’s soul. I can’t help but feel that Park and his team have a real, rose-tinted affection for the game. As a fan myself, I found the two commentators in particular to be really good value, Rob Brydon channelling his inner John Motson and Jock Brown to great effect. I can see how these little touches might get lost on those who have no interest in football though. As a result, it might be fair to say that Early Man is a little more niche than previous productions. Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run had much more universally recognisable British humour in their content. Nevertheless, for me, Early Man continues a tradition of great Aardmann films. They might not have the big bucks of Disney and Pixar but, like their Stone Age counterparts, Aardmann are still able to give their big-spending rivals a well-fought match.

Review, Heartbreak Talks, Fifth Floor by Gareth Williams

 

(3 / 5)

 

The debut album of Swedish duo Fifth Floor is a fine collection of tracks that draw together well-written lyrics and catchy musical arrangements. Imbibed with country-style riffs and rhythms, this selection of songs also features a fair bit of punkish attitude. Contrast that with some beautiful harmonies and you get an interesting overall sound from these ladies that makes Heartbreak Talks an intriguing listen.

You can hear the strength of their simultaneous singing in the opening track “Heart in Your Arms”. Despite the perceived weakness of their solo voices here, the two together create a really nice sound. It sets up their potential which is gradually fulfilled as the album progresses. The vocal arrangements on “Bought Me a Lie” are especially worth a mention. By the time we arrive at standout single “Sippin’ on a Coke”, not only do their combined vocals sound accomplished but there is real strength to their individual performances too. Though not quite my favourite, this song has a great chorus. Incorporating the themes of journeying and home, it reminds me a little of Ward Thomas’ A Town Called Ugley – its understated title line lends it a similar quirkiness though it is much more reflective in its overall tone.

Certainly, the end of this album heralds the strongest pieces from these two Swedes – Moa and Matilda – who moved to the UK in 2012. “These Days” is a lovely arrangement marked by a more stripped back style. The difficulty that I found with tracks “My Backyard, My Business” and “Diabolical” was that the musical power did not quite match the hard-edged attitude of the vocals – these rock-inspired tracks weren’t quite able to rock out. On the other hand, the title track, like “These Days”, with its more acoustic leanings, felt like a more natural fit for these ladies’ style.

Fifth Floor save the best until last. “The Girl” is a subversive ballad that combines the best of their punkish attitude with some gorgeous harmonies. It is understated, clever; heartbreak really does talk here. It leaves you in no doubt as to the theme that has been running through much of this album. Overall, Heartbreak Talks captures a really good, solid country sound. It is a really promising full-length debut from these ladies. Swedish they may be, but they are worthy of adoption into the ever-expanding UK country scene.

Review Heroine, Theatr Clwyd/High Tide by Gareth Williams

 

(4 / 5)

 

What an extraordinary piece of theatre Heroine is.” I just had to write this as my immediate response on Twitter after seeing Nessah Muthy’s one-act play. It has many of the ingredients that create a top-class production: powerful, emotive, provocative, and controversial. It centres on Grace, a former soldier looking for friendship and meaning in her post-conflict life. One day, she turns up at the local community centre, and finds a group of women with whom she forms a strong and emotional bond. When the centre is threatened with closure, she finds herself fighting a new war, one which consumes her in a devastating and heartrending way.

Asmara Gabrielle is spellbinding as the young Grace. She is the heartbeat of this production, setting the pace with a conflicting range of emotions. It is a dramatic performance that builds progressively, a vulnerability that evolves from a sense of loss to a deep feeling of injustice; a growing bitterness that translates into angry protestation and self-destructive violence. The ability of Gabrielle to hold such extraordinary emotional conflict in her performance, letting it drip-feed out like a springing leak in her soul, is simply masterful.

Supporting her are a cast of four women, each of their characters richly detailed so as make Heroine an ensemble piece. They are not present merely to make up the numbers. Muthy has managed to give each of these women culturally recognisable characteristics without falling into the trap of stereotyping them. We have the technology-savvy grandma, Bev (Maggie McCarthy), the strong-willed group leader Wendy (Lucy Thackeray) and the chatty, party-loving Cheryl (Wendy Morgan). Yet far from being typecast, each of them is given space to breathe and become part of a narrative that is driven by their individual motivations, their pain and their sense of truth. Placing them as the driving force of the play ensures that it maintains a credibility and verisimilitude that ultimately creates an absorbing and electrifying piece of theatre. We journey with them from an innocuous start – walking into the auditorium, the three of them are already onstage chatting. The set translates seamlessly into the front row, making it feel like you are actually stepping into their world which is, I have to say, exquisite in its realism – to an (almost literally) explosive finish. It is pure drama.

I can understand the grievances posed recently over the perceived lack of opportunities for Welsh talent at Theatr Clwyd at present. When I think back to Terry Hands’ tenure, there was a clear Welsh flavour to many of the productions. This is not so much the case now. Yet I think the criticism is very unfair. To judge a theatre’s impact merely on onstage content is to miss the point of Artistic Director Tamara Harvey’s vision. As I see it, her desire to create a theatre that is accessible for all, which engages with the wider community, and provides opportunities for involvement across the board (from workshops to apprenticeships, creative spaces to community forums, etc.) shows a passion for inspiring and encouraging Welsh talent that goes far beyond the actors and writers rooms; indeed, is capable of a much greater impact than some may suggest.

What does this have to do with Heroine? Well, I think it is simply wrong to judge this co-production with London-based HighTide as being at the expense of Welsh talent. As Harvey states, there are other skills embedded in a producing theatre, such as stage management, set building, scenic art, props making, lighting and sound (to name but a few) that contribute to an overall production. This is surely the case here. Furthermore, the need to create opportunities for new and emerging talent should not just stop at one’s own doorstep. By supporting such a quality script by a young writer, as well as an all-female cast, this local theatre is making a positive contribution to the national issue of diversity, an ongoing problem within the arts.

Heroine is a great example of a new work that, with support, can fulfil its potential. It is an absorbing story that deals with some big and pressing themes. With a strong cast and brilliantly-crafted script, it is certainly one to watch out for. A provocative piece of art.

Review The Mountaintop, Fio, Pontio by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

There is something incredibly sad about the fact that The Mountaintop is one of a rare number of plays in Wales featuring an all-black cast. Its director, Abdul Shayek, laments as much: “It is 2017 and the fact that this hasn’t happened more often makes me frustrated and sad”. There should be no reason why this is the case. Both the narrative and the performance in this production are of such a high quality. Yet there is a tension bubbling at the heart of it that is so unsettlingly relevant.

The Mountaintop is a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King’s last night on earth. The action takes place in a single room – Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, outside which the civil rights activist gets shot on April 4th, 1968. The set is no bigger than this – literally the size of a hotel room – making it extremely close, both claustrophobic and intimate. It allows us, the audience, to become privy to Dr King’s final hours in such fine and emotional detail. We see the anguish, laughter, fear and tenacity etched on the face of Mensah Bediako (King) at every turn. Such is the verisimilitude of Katori Hall’s script that there is even time to hear the great man himself go to the toilet, much to the amusement of the school group that had come along to watch. This level of authenticity, played out in real time, allows the conversation between King and hotel maid Camae (Rebecca Carrie) to flow naturally and build organically, with impressive results. The two actors bounce off one another brilliantly. Their timing and pace are perfectly attuned. They appear so comfortable in their working relationship, and so at ease with their characters. It makes for some excellent exchanges, fizzing with sexual chemistry and fermenting emotional intensity.

The success of their relationship helps concentrate The Mountaintop on a solid foundation. It helps to retain its integrity as it progresses into what could be considered surrealism. Without giving too much away, a dramatic twist sees the introduction of a heavenly dimension, bringing a sharp focus onto the reality of King’s impending death and his relationship with God. I liked the fact that Hall plays with our expectations, imaging God as both black and feminine. This is a God who is contactable, reachable through the hotel phone. Such is the bizarre nature of this section, King even has a conversation with Her. Yet it is testament to the quality of The Mountaintop’s writing and acting that it never runs off the rails. It is all part of the bigger message which comes into sharp focus at the play’s conclusion.

It is impossible to leave the theatre without responding, in some way, to The Mountaintop’s final scene. A powerful poem – “The Baton Passes On” – begins a subtle change in focus as its message is not only directed at King but at the audience too. Once Carrie finishes this piece, Bendiako stands on a plinth, addressing the audience directly. He evokes the great oratory skills of King to give an emotive speech which leaves you in no doubt about the need to respond. It is an arresting, challenging and profoundly affecting moment. On reflection, it also brings into sharp focus the continuing injustice of Shayek’s observation.

The Mountaintop is a rallying cry for each of us to be the change. It is an excellent production that surely signals for greater diversity in the theatre industry. There is a need for greater representation of minorities on stage, and on this evidence, this should certainly be the case. With an exceptional script, an immersive set, and a highly talented cast, The Mountaintop deserves much wider recognition. So, Welsh theatre industry, support more creative people from BAME backgrounds. On this evidence, you won’t regret it.

For more on the work of Fio, click here.