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: 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

Review, Kitty MacFarlane, Record Journal Live, Gwaenysgor Village Hall by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

On a cold Autumn evening, I ventured through the country lanes of North East Wales to the village of Gwaenysgor. It seems a very innocuous place to attend a gig with one of folk music’s brightest upcoming stars. Yet the small village hall, nestled in a corner just off the main road, was the perfect setting for an evening with Kitty MacFarlane. No sound system. No microphone. No fancy stage lighting. This was just Kitty and her acoustic guitar.

Hosted by the Record Journal Live, this wasn’t your average concert. In many ways, this was the epitome of a gig organised and run by people who are passionate about bringing live music to the local community. There’s something quite special about wandering in and finding your name written on a piece of paper, ready to be ticked off; being handed a cup of tea in a random mug that’s been poured out of a stainless steel teapot; entering into a hall whose tables and chairs have had to be laid out beforehand. No technology. No paid bar staff. Just a warm and friendly atmosphere into which MacFarlane’s gentle vocals and whimsical guitar chords beautifully contribute.

Beginning with ‘Only Human’, MacFarlane proceeded with a delectable mixture of stories and songs. It was a fascinating insight into both her songwriting process as well as her wider world. From it, I sensed a deep affinity with nature. There was clearly a deep connection to her local area too – the Somerset Levels. To be given a context to songs like ‘Man, Friendship’, written in response to the 2014 floods, a picture of which adorns the cover of her debut album, gave them an extra dimension. Told with light humour and gentle passion by MacFarlane meant that they became ever more compelling too. Such light humour peppered most of her anecdotes. Her passion was especially evident when it came to ‘Glass Eels’. Introducing the song, she recounted how she’d spent a day with some wildlife conservationists, studying these fascinating creatures. Such an experience clearly left its mark on her, her continuing interest in eels all too evident and somewhat infectious too. It gave a real insight into the careful crafting that has gone into each of her songs. Every one featured in this set had a tale to tell, and was sung with tender conviction.

One of the most captivating moments in this set came during her rendition of David Francey’s ‘Saints and Sinners’. With the guitar placed to one side, this was Kitty MacFarlane truly unplugged. If it wasn’t enough to enjoy the sole sound of her melodious voice, once the familiarity of the chorus had been claimed by the audience, they joined in with her to create a finish to the song that was truly transcendental and awe-inspiring. It perfectly encapsulated the emotion of the whole evening.

Kitty MacFarlane is as warm and welcoming offstage as she is on. She has received huge commendations for her debut album Namer of Clouds, and rightly so. It is a superb record that deserves your listening ear. In some respects, the twee surroundings of a local community hall is exactly where you expect her to be. To hear her live is a real treat. To be in such an intimate environment when you do is a bonus. The Record Journal has tapped into something here. They’ve kept it sweet and simple. On this occasion, it suited MacFarlane’s performance perfectly. Stripped back and laid bare, this was folk at its finest. A concert that was well worth attending.

Click here for tour dates and further info.

gareth

Review, Lord of the Flies, Theatr Clwyd/Sherman Theatre Co-Production by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The all-female cast of Lord of the Flies, a Theatr Clwyd and Sherman Theatre co-production, may have caused a stir in some quarters. But, for me, it’s actually one of the least interesting aspects of the production. This adaptation of William Golding’s 1954 novel translates the characters from page to stage seamlessly. It is their unique and distinct personalities, and the interactions between them, that fascinate most. The gender, as well as race, of the actors on stage very quickly becomes superfluous. I hope that, after all the hype and controversy, Jodie Whittaker’s introduction as the 13th Doctor next week will have a similar effect.

Director Emma Jordan has chosen to explode this production onto the stage. Sitting comfortably in my seat, the sudden detonation of light and sound to begin the play made me jump out of my skin. It was terrifying. Yet the exhilaration was equally palpable. It doesn’t take long for the characters, stranded on a desert island after their plane crashes, to establish themselves in the minds of the audience. The sensible Piggy (Gina Fillingham), the humble Ralph (Lola Adaja), and the vitriolic Jack (Kate Lamb) are as familiar here as they are in the pages of Golding’s book. Nigel Williams’ script remains relatively faithful to the novel, whilst condensing the action into a tightly-framed two hour performance. This means that the narrative skips along nicely. Yet the big moments still have plenty of room to breathe, resulting in some dramatic scenes that ooze tension and leave tangible space for reflection in their wake.

Far removed from her lovely persona as Delia Busby in Call the Midwife, Lamb seems to relish the role of Jack. The harsh delivery of her early criticism towards Fillingham’s sweetly amusing Piggy makes her character instantly dislikeable. Lamb appears at pains to place her character as the central antagonist through her brash and bold movements alongside the venomous verbal outbursts contained in Williams’ script. Such characterisation presents a confidence and commandeering that translates itself into a vision of leadership that can seem right and proper. It is in stark contrast to the pragmatic Ralph, played by Adaja. Her presence is less about physical flare. Instead, it is a more contained performance that sees the character wrestling internally with conflicting ideas and sentiments. This is conveyed brilliantly by Adaja through far more subtle movement than we get from Lamb. Combined with more strain and staccato in her vocal expression, Adaja demonstrates both the humility and self-doubt that lie at the heart of Ralph. This makes her, to all intents and purposes, a far more qualified leader, in my view. Yet this is a vision of leadership that is so often judged as weak and ineffective. The dynamic between these two, very different characters is, I believe, of huge relevance today, not least in the context of local, national, and global politics.

When I encounter Lord of the Flies, it is the use and misuse of power that fascinates. It is a theme that goes beyond gender. It speaks of the human condition. Therefore, to argue that changing the gender of the characters is problematic is, in my opinion, nonsense. Not that it is completely irrelevant. After the show, I overheard one female audience member comment that girls can be just as savage as boys. Would this observation have been made without the female-only cast? To offer an alternative (female) perspective, one that still remains sadly lacking in contemporary theatre, is important. But it is by no means one of the main reasons why this production is worth seeing. It is worth seeing because it features a very talented and dynamic cast who work brilliantly together to create an engaging and interesting adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Add in some well-placed music and very effective use of lighting and it makes for a bold and challenging dramatization of a narrative whose themes still resonate strongly today. In the end, this is simply a great story, well told.

Click here for tickets.

gareth

Review, Talk of This Town, Catherine McGrath by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Catherine McGrath represents the next stage in the UK country music revolution. I say this because it is not just BBC Radio 2 that are championing her. Scott Mills and others have been playing the 21-year-old’s music over on Radio 1 too. Her debut album Talk of This Town is bursting with the kind of country-pop that made a certain Taylor Swift known to the mainstream. In that case, it might not be one for the country music purists. But for those of us who like the lyrical emphasis and authenticity of the genre, McGrath serves up a real treat.

Talk of This Town is essentially the soundtrack to the past three years of her life. Adopting a heart-on-sleeve approach to her storytelling, McGrath is open, honest and vulnerable about her relationships. It has the effect of making them relatable in such a way that even I, a 27-year-old male, could find solace in some of her songs. I say this because their themes resonate beyond the boundaries of their mostly romantic settings. For example, opening track ‘Talk of This Town’ presents the image of a person who doesn’t quite fit in (tick), who has been continuously shot down (tick), and whose dreams are waiting to be burned down at the first signs of fear or failure (tick). The more I listened to this song, the more I could see myself in it, and the more I gained inspiration from McGrath’s ultimately positive outlook.

The further one goes into the album, the more McGrath’s honesty and vulnerability transcend the catchy pop riffs of her songs. They may be coated in music that makes you want to dance, but contained within are raw and revealing emotions that are comforting, hopeful and inspiring in equal measure. For example, ‘Just in Case’ is underpinned by uncertainty, ‘Dodged a Bullet’ reveals hidden emotional scars, and ‘Thought It Was Gonna Be Me’ is a harsh lesson in heartbreak. This latter song is beautifully complimented by its predecessor ‘Wild’, the epitome of McGrath’s blend of honest storytelling and infectious country-pop music. ‘Wild’ is probably the standout track on Talk of This Town, followed closely behind by ‘Lost in the Middle’, which has the most stupendous chorus. Both tracks are heavily-laden with guitars, whilst the addition of the banjo gives each a sprinkling of country and western flavour. This seems to be the favoured musical mixture for McGrath, and it works well, despite what country music critics such as David West and Duncan Warwick might argue.

Talk of This Town is a wonderful collection of songs that might be influenced by the sound of Taylor Swift but are written from the heart of Catherine McGrath herself. They are a beautifully blended set of country-pop songs that draw comparisons not only with Swift but Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris too. There is a Kacey Musgraves-like honesty to her storytelling that definitely leans towards the hopeless romantic of Musgraves’ Golden Hour. Yet despite this emphasis it remains hugely relatable, largely because McGrath presents her experiences in such a way that the themes contained within them become identifiable beyond their specific context. She is the outsider, the dreamer, playing second fiddle and without much romantic luck. Yet in spite of her experiences she remains positive and inspired. You need only listen to the music that she combines with her lyrics to realise this.

Catherine McGrath is a real talent. She is going to go far, not just because she is making great music but because she is a genuinely lovely person too. The response to the release of Talk of This Town was evidence enough that she is fast winning a legion of fans. Her autumn tour will surely be the last in which she plays the UK’s smaller venues. The larger arenas beckon. It won’t be long before this talented (for so long supporting) artist becomes a regular fixture at the top of the festival bill. And she truly deserves it.

Click here to view her website.

gareth

Series Review, Hidden, BBC Cymru Wales by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

When one looks back over 2018, Keeping Faith is sure to come out on top in the world of Welsh television drama. It has been a huge success. Its latest stop on its incredible journey is primetime BBC One. It goes from strength to strength, and will certainly deserve all the accolades that come its way. In amidst all the hype of this brilliant series however, it has been easy to overlook another Welsh drama that has been airing over the past two months on BBC Wales and BBC Four respectively. Produced by the creator of another Welsh hit drama Hinterland, Ed Talfan, Hidden has been allowed to bubble away below the surface of Keeping Faith’s success. I would suggest that this is primarily because it is a crime drama. And though I would agree, to a certain extent, with some of the groans that accompany the thought of yet another one hitting our screens, it does at least offer something a little different. There is a slight spin on the achingly familiar.

The twist in Hidden’s tale is the revelation of the killer at the outset. The opening scene sees a girl running through the woods, pursued by an unknown man. This girl is subsequently found dead. The investigation that unravels across the whole of the series centres on finding this girl’s killer. Such a task is given to local detectives Cadi John (Sian Reece Williams) and Owen Vaughan (Sion Alun Davies). But whilst they are in the dark over the killer’s identity, the viewer is given unprecedented access into the life of Dylan Harris, played brilliantly by Rhodri Meilir. A strange, sensitive and brutalised figure, Harris lives with his mother and daughter in an old farmhouse deep within a forest of the Snowdonia National Park. It turns out that he is a serial abductor of young women. Having let his latest catch go, we witness his unsuccessful attempt at abducting a local farm girl. Then, as the pieces of the drama’s puzzle start to come together á la The Bridge, he claims the life of long-suffering student Megan Ruddock (a standout performance from Gwyneth Keyworth). What follows is a tense thriller that follows both the police investigation and Harris’ narrative simultaneously. As a result, it involves the viewer deeply in its various twists and turns over the course of its eight episode run.

Despite the fact that the central crime isn’t particularly original, Hidden remains worthy of some praise for the performances of two of its central actors: Rhodri Meilir and Gwyneth Keyworth. Episode four in particular, which is wholly focused on Dylan and Megan, is a deeply uncomfortable yet utterly compelling hour of television. It is made so by their noteworthy performances. Firstly, Meilir brings a vulnerability and gentleness to the role of Dylan that will be recognisable to fans of the sitcom My Family, in which he played the hapless Alfie. Yet this vulnerability and gentleness are subverted as a result of the abuse Dylan has suffered at the hands of his mother (Gillian Elisa). As a result, they manifest themselves in an extremely dark and dangerous way, far from the comforting confines of the Harper household. Meilir manages to express such complexity at the heart of his character in such a way that the viewer is both sympathetic yet repulsed by him. To extract such opposing emotions is testament to Meilir and his ability to play such a broken and complex figure. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Keyworth produces an emotionally raw performance as Megan, a student whose mental anguish (outwardly shown in the form of self-harm) is exacerbated by her abduction. It is an incredibly challenging role that Keyworth manages to embody wholeheartedly. As a result, she is powerfully believable as Megan. It is easy to forget sometimes, in the course of the series, that what is witnessed is a dramatic reconstruction. Keyworth plays it in such a way that it seems horribly real. For me, it is one of the most engrossing performances in a British TV drama this year.

With a stunning backdrop that shows off the bleak, mountainous terrain of North West Wales in all its magnificent and austere glory, Hidden may not be revolutionary but it is still worth watching. With some excellent performances from the cast and a slightly different take on the conventional crime narrative, it has enough going for it to keep viewers coming back for more. If you like your crime dramas dark and disturbing, then Hidden is certainly for you. It may not be Keeping Faith but it nevertheless showcases the fantastic talent coming out of Wales at the moment at every level, from production to acting, storytelling to editing. This is very exciting. With hopefully more fantastic ‘Made in Wales’ dramas to come, the Welsh TV landscape looks like going from strength to strength.

Click here to watch the full series.

gareth

Review Home, I’m Darling, A Theatr Clwyd/ National Theatre Co-production by Gareth Williams

Update : the production is transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre for a limited season this January. Booking can be made at the highlighted link above.
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Travelling along the sun-drenched roads of North Wales in the heat of an early July evening, I wondered whether it was the right time to be going to sit in a theatre. But Home, I’m Darling is worth suffering a bit of sweat for. It may have been warm in the Emlyn Williams Theatre, but that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying Laura Wade’s brand-new play. With a sizzling set, a bunch of colourful characters, and a blooming good narrative blossoming with resonant themes, this is a must-see for the summer.

As I entered the auditorium, I gasped with amazement at the sheer size and scope of the set. To be greeted by a full scale model of a house was not what I expected. I was positively overwhelmed by the sheer level of detail in its interiors and furnishings. The work of designer Anna Fleishle and her team is nothing short of remarkable. It transports us immediately into the world of the 1950s, where we meet a “sickeningly happy” couple played by Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd, Humans) and Richard Harrington (Hinterland, Lark Rise to Candleford). Parkinson plays the doting housewife to Harrington’s sporting gentleman. Set to the music of Mr Sandman, there is an air of pristine perfection about this opening scene. The song exudes a dream-like state in which these two characters exist and, indeed, as Harrington’s Johnny pops on his hat and coat, takes his lunchbox packed by Parkinson’s Judy, and kisses his wife goodbye, it all feels rather like a Sunday afternoon TV movie. So when Parkinson pulls out an iPad from a drawer, it creates a moment of dissonance that reverberates on the saccharine glass of this play’s squeaky –clean window.

Parkinson gives an accomplished performance as Judy, an idealist who delights in the idea of immersing herself in the 1950s by becoming a full-time housewife. It is not just the décor that oozes a nostalgic charm. Along with some incredibly elegant dresses, Parkinson’s slightly RP-toned accent and gliding movement paint a picture of a simple existence far removed from the complications of modern life. Judy is a woman who has chosen this life of frugality and servitude. Parkinson has her defend this choice with the kind of razor-sharp wit that is a staple of her acting persona. Even the impassioned speech of her feminist mother (Sian Thomas) seems to have little effect on her. It is a succinct and timely reminder of all that women have fought for over the past 100 years. It may not have broken through the resolute edge that Parkinson provides Judy with, but it was powerful to hear as an audience member. Such a resolute appearance is marked by an air of vulnerability however. Judy has lost herself in the pursuit of her ‘50s dream. It is left to Johnny to help her find herself again. Harrington invests warmth and loving care into his character. He could not be further removed from his troubled and brooding character in Hinterland. When he does get angry, it is a tone that will be familiar to fans of the BBC Wales crime drama. It seems that anger is what Harrington does best. Yet there is a distinctly soft side to Johnny that shows another side to Harrington’s acting ability that I’ve not seen before. It was refreshing to see, and proves his worth as one of Wales’ finest contemporary actors.

Sadly, we don’t get to see near enough of another of Wales’ finest. In my opinion, Sara Gregory is up there with Eve Myles in terms of her acting ability and characterisation. Her turn as branch manager and Johnny’s boss Alex in Home, I’m Darling is short but unsurprisingly sweet. She brings a professional charisma and expert flair to her character that makes her a formidable force for the short time she is on stage. When her, Parkinson and Harrington are together, it is one of the most electrifying scenes of the whole play. Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay complete the cast, both giving solid performances as husband and wife duo Fran and Marcus. Such is the quality of their characterisation that they could easily be the lead characters in another story. It is testament to Laura Wade’s writing that, instead, we have them occupying this space as minor, but no less significant, characters to Parkinson and Harrington’s leads.

Due to move to the National Theatre in London later this month, Home, I’m Darling is worth catching if you are in or around North East Wales. Director Tamara Harvey and her team have again excelled themselves with a production that is just as, if not even more memorable, than 2017’s Uncle Vanya. The set is certainly as iconic as the one created for Uncle Vanya, and the cast that has been assembled is again oozing with quality. Katherine Parkinson feels like she was made for the part of Judy. Richard Harrington is brilliant as her husband Johnny. Sara Gregory and the rest of the cast are given characters that could quite easily be lead parts in an alternative version of events. Massive credit must go to Laura Wade for creating such an inventive and mesmeric play. She has created something that perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist, and that includes the weather at present. Amidst the current spell of sunny weather, it is worth venturing indoors for an evening in order to see this wonderfully colourful creation.

Click here for more info.

gareth

Gareth Williams

Review, Island Town, A Theatr Clwyd/ Paines Plough Co-Production by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Roundabout Theatre makes a welcome return to North Wales sporting a rather distinct yellow exterior. If you’ve not heard of it before, this is a theatre like no other. Assembled from flat pack with nothing but an Allen key, once complete, it is a fully self-contained, intimate little theatre that houses some of the most fantastic new plays in Britain. One of those plays is Island Town, which I was lucky enough to see last week. This 80-minute story of small town life could be described as a dramatic stage version of the BBC3 comedy This Country. Still full of humour but with a darker political edge, Island Town focuses on the lives of three friends trying to get by in a place that offers very little in the way of meaningful activity. With only the hope of escape, they settle, for the time being, on hanging out with one another, getting drunk on cider and looking ahead to the start of their adult lives. But when school’s out and exams are over, they find that it’s not so easy getting by in a place where there’s nothing to do. And escaping is not as easy as it sounds.

Writer Simon Longman has done a sterling job in creating a simple yet powerful narrative. He has created three well-formed characters that all three actors seem to comfortably step into and make their own. It is their relationships that drive the story forward, and make this piece particularly engaging. Whilst I am sad that the wonderful Katie Elin-Salt is not part of the cast this year, the production company, Paines Plough, have nevertheless found three excellent actors to play the roles. Katherine Pearce, in particular, has proved to be a real coup. I say this because she steals the show as Kate, an angry and assertive young carer who feels trapped by the need to look after her ill father. Pearce crackles with antagonistic rage. She places Kate as the centre of attention, a position which seems to strengthen her resolve whilst simultaneously covering up her vulnerability. Such is her pragmatic insistence and strong-willed notions that the three of them must escape the confines of their hometown that we, like Sam (Charlotte O’Leary) and Pete (Jack Wilkinson), agree to go along with her. Yet the consequences of such a decision are damaging to say the least. From here, Pearce slowly allows her character’s vulnerability to creep up to the surface. She causes the fragile state of her character to painstakingly crack through its steely confines. Such a move makes for an emotive performance, and makes Pearce herself one-to-watch.

Both O’Leary and Wilkinson give good support to Pearce in her more central role. In particular, Wilkinson brings a wonderful humorous naivety to his character. He deposits real warmth into his performance that evokes much laughter from the audience, particularly as he spins a fantastic web of outrageous stories, the highlight of which has to be his cremation for a fish. You can’t help but love him, which is why the injustice that he subsequently suffers elicits very strong feelings. In this instance, Longman makes Pete a political mouthpiece for the small town unemployed. He notes that there are no jobs in the local area. With no means of earning money, he must sign on. Yet he can’t sign on as he hasn’t got enough money for the train to the out-of-town job centre. There are no buses, and he can’t drive either. The non-specificity of Island Town’s setting means that it speaks generally into the heart of rural British life, of “Towns that sit like islands in the middle of fields”. Longman shines a sharp spotlight on the realities of small town life, making this not only a humorous play but a very relevant one too.

Island Town is a funny, thought-provoking play of minimalist proportions. At the same time, its message is somewhat universal. At one end, it captures the wonderful creativity that can arise from sheer boredom. On the other hand, it reveals the desperation that can result from a lack of amenities. Katherine Pearce gives a strong emotive performance as Kate, ably joined by Charlotte O’Leary and Jack Wilkinson. The three capture life in a small town incredibly well. With no props or no scenery, they still manage to draw us into their world and make it incredibly real. I’d recommend you catch it, if not in Mold then elsewhere. That’s the beauty of this pop-up theatre. It can pop up anywhere.

Click here to find out more.

gareth

Review, Ghost of You, Megan O’Neill by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Irish singer-songwriter Megan O’Neill has just released a beautiful debut album that I would highly recommend listening to. Ghost of You is a lovely collection of songs that represent a wonderful opportunity for some easy listening on a summer’s afternoon. Served as a main course of ballads with a side of electric guitar-infused pop, it is a delectable album that gently tantalises the taste buds. You certainly wouldn’t refuse more.

Opening track Don’t Come Easy sets the scene, creating an expansive space which O’Neill fills with her gorgeous vocals. The electric guitar here helps open up the stage so that when we enter into the slow, soulful sound of Let’s Make One Up, its full potential can be realised. With a great guitar solo and the lovely addition of an electric organ, this is a fabulous blues-inspired track that ensures the walls around this album remain wide and open for the rest of its duration. Into this space, O’Neill then steps to sing a succession of piano-laden ballads, each one beautiful in its own way. The title track is one that could easily make it onto a mainstream radio playlist, reminding me of a stripped back version of an Anne Marie or Dua Lipa song. To place O’Neill alongside these artists is also to say that her vocals are second-to-none. In some ways, it is all about the voice. Whether echoed (Treading Water), amplified (Don’t Say It’s Over), emotionally-charged (Any Younger) or naturalistic (Lost a Love), here is an artist whose voice is the defining feature in every song. Perhaps that’s why the ballad suits Megan O’Neill so much. Instead of drawing you in, she fills the space; rather than edging closer to her, she comes to you. It is a different kind of closeness and intimacy. It works well.

My personal favourite on this album has to be Bottle. Having recently listened to Mind of Mine by Lisa Wright, there seems to be an alcoholic theme emerging in my UK country music collection. Both artists seem to be seeking solace in the wine bottle. Whereas Wright’s troubles are told in a musically-dissonant way though, O’Neill takes a much more familiar line, pouring her despair and yearning into a big vocal performance full of aching emotion. It doesn’t make it any less relatable though.

Following close behind in the standout tracks on Ghost of You is the final song, Lost a Love. Despite thinking that catchy crowd-pleaser Good Love would be the one that would stick in my head afterwards, I actually found Lost a Love to be the song that left an indelible mark on my mind. It is what I call a “proper country ballad”. It evokes the likes of Emmylou Harris or Beth Nielsen Chapman in its simplicity, reflectivity and poignancy. Moreover, there is so much emotional vitality and variety in O’Neill’s voice here. It is absolutely compelling. Truly four minutes to savour.

No wonder Megan O’Neill has reached No.1 in the Irish country music charts, shared a stage with Miranda Lambert and Kip Moore, and appeared numerous times at C2C. She has an immense voice and a great songwriting talent which combine here to make a truly wonderful album. As debuts go, Ghost of You is more than pretty good. Full of ballads dealing with love and loss, it is engaging on every level. I’d encourage you to check it out.

Click here to sample some of her tracks.