Rebecca Hobbs

Hello, I'm Becca. During my MA at Cardiff University, I started writing as a young critic and quickly fell in love with the arts scene in Cardiff. I'm currently training to be an arts fundraiser at Wales Millennium Centre as part of Arts and Business Cymru's Development Internship Programme. Of an evening, you can usually find me in one of the arts venues across Cardiff. I'll be the one with a notepad and pen and a packet of strawberry laces on the go!

Review Dracula Sherman Players by Becca Hobbs

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Entering the Sherman Studio to pulsating music, you take your seat and look down into the pit where the cast are already in motion, rocking, twitching, sighing and gliding around with glazed expressions; the play’s preoccupation with madness is already apparent.

With an uncluttered set of different sized boxes used as the bed and grave, the setting (by designer Bethany Seddon and scenic carpenter Matthew Thomas) has a simplistic but eerie quality. In the most medicalised version of Dracula that I have seen, Liz Lockheed’s contemporary adaptation is a testimony of shared madness. With two characters playing one part, the body and the mind are split in two, actualising the medical discourse of the late nineteenth century by visualising a split personality on stage.

There is real psychological drive to the performance that is carried by the characterisation of Renfield (Luther Phillips/Nicky Howard-Kemp) and the asylum backdrop. Ainsleigh Barber also plays her part in creating the imaginative madhouse as a foul-mouthed nurse with a look of lunacy herself. To see Renfield as a character is interesting as the text always mentions him within Dr Seward’s journal entries but he has no voice. In Lochhead’s adaptation, he sits at the heart of the action, looking down on his cast, quoting poor Tom (the madman in King Lear) as if locked in a bird-cage munching on flies. His verse is poetic despite its jittery and schizophrenic nature and is sensitively interpreted by Luther Phillips and Nicky Howard-Kemp who are both particularly convincing. Having a male and female counterpart for the representation of madness is a fantastic idea.

 As the sighs from the psychiatric patients become the sound of the train shooting down the tracks, the underlying technological movement from Bram Stoker’s text emerges and the sensual movement becomes systematic.

 Set against Dracula’s predatory movement and the sexualised female ruby lips of Alys Wilcox, a lot of the characters – Harker (Finbar Varrel), Mina (Ruth Long/ Kirsty Campbell) and Florrie (Alice Muzzioli/Inari Soinila), a new addition to cast as the maid – are noticeably domesticated and the women are dressed in dirty white attire; Florrie with a baby on the way, and Mina and Harker unable to let go of the fact that the other was seduced by the darkness of vampirism. Stoker wrote his novel only a few years after Jack the Ripper and the sense of fear and use of protruding shadows aligned with the domestic snippets bring this production into the real world. Or so it seems until the madhouse is revisited again.

 Alys Wilcox plays a seductive Dracula, eloquent but smouldering. Saskia Pay and Meg Lewis’ dual characterisation of Lucy is full of flirtation and gracefulness until the dramatically engaging transformation into frenzy during the nightmarish sleepwalking sequence where both girls are at their best. The whole cast works well together and aside from an occasional static line, it is clear that a lot of preparation has gone into the performance and the Sherman Players produce a very ambitious and interesting production.

 The end, like the novel is anticlimactic. I was waiting was Van Helsing to appear above over Dracula’s body in a photo like shot holding the knife to sever the head, (especially after the camera played a great deal of significance), but that is a personal preference. Overall, the Sherman Players pulled off a very admirable first performance and the show is well worth a watch!

 Wickedly innovative and full of conviction, this was a great start for the Sherman Players.

 Performances are running at the Sherman Theatre until Saturday 25th July, 7.30p.m nightly.

http://www.shermancymru.co.uk/performance/theatre/dracula/

 

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    Review RWCMD The Cunning Little Vixen at the Sherman Theatre by Rebecca Hobbs

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    Ninety years on and a cartoon strip that appeared in a Moravian newspaper continues to show us the nature of life and its cyclic immortality. Leoš Janáček’s beautiful and musically inviting The Cunning Little Vixen is currently being performed at the Sherman Theatre by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

    Every time this opera is recreated, the director is faced with a decision as to whether the human context is more important to focus on than the cartoon comic woodland fairy tale. On this occasion, Harry Fehr chooses an extreme and creates a complete human adaptation with a darker edge that plays against the cartoon (aside from the wedding party which is a welcome folk interlude). Rather than the human characters being anthropomorphised, Fehr concentrates on the characters’ animal instincts being dramatised.

     The ‘Vixen’ is a moniker just as her love interest (Zlatohřbitek) goes by the name of ‘The Fox’.  Throughout her youth Bystrouška (Sophie Levi) is convicted for a number of criminal activities. Locked up by Sheriff (Emyr Wyn Jones), her obsessive pursuer usually takes the form of a forester but the creatures of the animal kingdom are replaced by their domestic counterparts: holiday makers, police offers and a gang of ‘liberated’ female convicts that replace the clucking hens of the animal kingdom.

     Whilst the production loses its comic enchanting quality, it was an interesting interpretation and one that comfortably plays to all the advantages of a young ensemble; the life cycle focuses on growing up and the adolescent right of passage. Sophie Levi’s expressive and impassioned performance as the cunning Vixen also captures an awkward teenage insecurity whilst she is being courted by  Zlatohřbitek, her love interest, charmingly played by Jessica Robinson. In the male cast, Emyr Wyn Jones’ command of the Sheriff role and his character’s journey is particularly impressive. Whilst the futile attempts to catch the Vixen enrage him, his concluding paean to nature is poignant and his rich tone is perfectly complimented by the moving orchestral score.

    Aside from a few stage glitches, the production was performed to an incredibly high standard and the star voices were as good any professional production. The RWCMD chamber orchestra conducted by David Jones brought the colourful and boisterous score to life as the comic character resonated through the music. If you are a fan of Janáček’s work,  this unusual adaptation is well worth a watch.

    The Cunning Little Vixen is on from 7-9th July at the Sherman Theatre.

    http://www.shermancymru.co.uk/performance/music/the-cunning-little-vixen/

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      Review Bianco No Fit State Circus by Becca Hobbs

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      “We should know by now that the most exact, most precise representation of the human heart is the labyrinth. And where the human heart is involved, anything is possible”

      (The Elephant’s Journey, José Saramango)

      Nofit State Circus is back with its newly adapted 2015 immersive promenade experience BIANCO. Entering the tent you are left to explore a huge dimly lit grunge style performance space. As the artists gabble away to each other, pushing through the crowd as if obstacles, the pre-show is choreographed chaos with silhouettes of performers, hidden by translucent sheets, warming up behind a scaffolding cage in front of you. Props and ladders are thrown around amongst muffled shouts of indistinct languages and you stand there invisible, as if you have secretly stumbled into an unidentifiable time.

      Channelling Portuguese laureate José Saramango’s novel The Elelphant’s Journey, embarking on an adventure across Europe, creator and director Firenza Guidi’s BIANCO plays with concepts of geographical place and contemporary culture. With a cast from all over the world, the show incorporates elements of burlesque humour, romance and cabaret set against innovative contemporary imitations of a trip to the cinema and a balmy trampoline based scene at the seaside.

      Between the tender moments of interpretative sequences in the air by the trapeze, rope and silk artists, there are dives and stunts that generate gasps from the audience as performers drop, spin and leap above and around you but the element of danger makes it all the more exhilarating. Whilst the team are incredibly safety conscious with the audience, particularly the children, the company perform without safety nets. However, their energy and confidence is infectious and within the first fifteen minutes, you begin to forget that they are in danger at all as you are so wrapped up in the visual and aural spectacle. Scene changes often become a part of the act and there is always something to overt your eye and capture your attention whist structural reshuffles are taking place.

      There are a few stagnant changes but the momentum is never lost as the atmosphere is maintained by the incredible live band and diverse score. BIANCO is as much about the artistic choreography as it about the music that compliments it.

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      Shedding their clothes, transforming and adapting to each new structure, the chameleon like performers take on multiple roles within this huge narrative and create a visual language that demonstrates (building on the foundations of Saramango’s novel) that we are capable of surpassing our own expectations. To single out individuals feels wrong as every performer whether they are holding an instrument, strapped to a harness or doing both adds something unique.

      You cannot merely watch the show, for those extensive 140 minutes you become a part of it, being allowed to enter the performers intimate world both figuratively and literally through the promenade experience. If you are willing to embrace BIANCO for what it is – there is no pandering to the audience, you are shuffled around and you stand for the duration – the danger, spectacle and unrestrained beauty will take your breath away. The technical skill and serenity is coupled with something raw but the outcome is utterly compelling. Nofit State Circus bares its soul in this pioneering production of friendship and adventure. It is clear that a NoFit family has been created and by end of show when in that moment you want to be a part of it, you find yourself left in the finale’s close standing in a snow globe with the performers watching you.

      NoFit State don’t just set the bar high, they fearlessly leap over it.

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        Life in Close Up: The Other Room’s First Season Overview by Rebecca Hobbs

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        Life in Close Up: The Other Room’s First Season Overview

        Now that The Other Room’s opening season has reached its close, Kate Wasserberg and her team can breath their first sigh of relief after a hugely successful critical and public response to three very unusual plays. Spatially, with just forty-four seats, it was an apt move to shape the first season around the intimate experience that The Other Room offers as the performance sits on top of you wherever you are situated. As a final round up to reflect on the ‘Life in Close Up’ season’s antics and audience appraisals, I had the opportunity to catch up with artistic director Kate Wasserberg and Alun Saunders, the writer of ‘A Good Clean Heart’ to address those niggling questions and observations that struck me during these performances.

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        Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995)

        It was bold choice by Kate and the The Other Room team to open the season and the theatre itself with a play that is engulfed in controversial and challenging criticism. The late 90’s reviews had originally brandished Sarah Kane’s Blasted as a sordid and immature piece of writing that for all intensive purposes was written to shock. Despite many of these accusations being revised, launching the ‘Life in Close Up’ season with Blasted instantly stimulated debate and got people talking about what the The Other Room in Cardiff was doing. This was my first piece as a young critic and I had no idea what to expect. After briefly flitting over a Wikipedia synopsis, I initially struggled to grasp the script’s bizarre intentions. However, after seeing it performed as a play rather than reading out a list of violent gimmicks, it became clear that these online summaries are hugely damaging to the play’s reputation; the impact lies within the performance. Despite its controversial standpoint, The Other Room’s production was given a 4* rating by The Guardian and overall it excelled in its reviews from critics who were somewhat shaken but left in awe.

        Blasted- A Close up with Kate Wasserberg (Artistic Director)

        Q: Recently, with Sherman’s ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ and Chapter’s more ambitious programme, Cardiff theatre seems to have dropped the conservative barrier but a script of this intensity has very rarely been performed on Welsh soil. This was out of Cardiff’s theatrical comfort zone. You clearly had confidence in the script and the fantastic cast. Were you concerned about the play’s notoriety and about challenging the relatively safe expectations of theatre that Cardiff sits comfortably with or did you anticipate that this would fuel its success? Despite the fact that I cannot pretend to have necessarily enjoyed watching Blasted, it was an unforgettable experience and one that has successfully conjured a huge critical response.

         

        Kate: I have always thought of Blasted as a really honest, heartfelt play. Of course I was aware that it is shocking in places and yes that was a conscious decision, to offer up something new. But the main motivation was not so much a response to the arts scene but as a way to attempt to articulate the world as I was experiencing it at the time, not as wholly dark but certainly with cruelty and pain and callousness out there, on the news. The critical response was really varied, and the first few reviews that came out, they really disliked the show and that was quite a raw experience – I can’t remember the last time I have felt so exposed, the cast were giving these incredibly courageous performances and we hadn’t had long to rehearse it really so I felt very protective. But that’s part of doing this play, and approaching it the way we did – head on with no deliberate style. It’s not for everyone and you have to accept that. Of course then more reviews came out and some people did really like it and that was lovely and the audience started to feedback to us and we grew in confidence, but all responses are perfectly valid and that rawness is part of the experience, I think.

         

        Q: Initially, I struggled to distinguish what exactly had bothered me about the play which was odd because the shocking violent junctures are overtly clear and it surprised me that they were not my primary concern. It was the moments of sympathy embedded in the horror, Kate’s uncontrollable laughter and the desperate cry for help read through Ian’s eye contact during the rape. It was the fact that there is never an entire loss of humanity which as an audience member is what you crave in order to dismiss what you have witnessed. Were you specifically conscious about how these moments were going to be directed?

         

        Kate: I think I was, yes. Our starting point as a company was to be as real as possible – to ask, but what if this really was happening? It sounds a bit trite to say it now but in a play that is known for being shocking, it was important for us that the people were complex and human and real. Christian, Louise and Simon were all totally fearless about allowing themselves to go to some very difficult places emotionally and that did take a toll on them at times, but I think they all felt like we were engaged in something quite special and it was worth the vulnerability they felt.

         

        Q: I am sure, particularly with this play, you witnessed a whole spectrum of reactions as people came out of The Other Room. Is there a specific response that stands out to you?

         

        Kate: It was a bit odd in previews – perfectly content, happy people came in and shaken, crying people came out and I genuinely thought, my god, what are we engaged in here? Why do that to people? But of course to be moved is wonderful, even when it’s dreadful. I remember a group early on who really laughed at the jokes, right through to the end, they were wonderful. And an actor friend of mine who literally couldn’t speak, she had to call me the next day. But that’s the play – that’s Sarah Kane and her brilliance. We just tried to do her justice really.

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        Howard Barker’s The Dying of Today (2008)

        After the hype of the first production, expectations were high for the second play in the series, Howard Barker’s The Dying of Today. Inspired by Thucydides’ account of the destruction of the Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian War, the play is constructed from that anxiety induced moment of inevitability, considering the worst case scenario in order to deduce how we process the phenomenon ‘bad news’. This was an equally challenging script for entirely different reasons. Barker’s play is stripped of distractions; its plot can be summarised by one line. To keep an audience attentive when the play is entirely based around a conversation with two people in such a mundane environment is a challenge for any director and two man cast.

        The Dying of Today- A Close Up with Kate

        Q:When I came to see this play, I distinctly remember that I still had half a drink left after the production came to a close. I was immediately drawn into the performance. It almost had a hypnotic effect on me and I think that had a lot to do with the narrative’s rhythmic pace and the fluidity of Leander Deeny and Christian Patterson’s interactions. How did you initially approach this script, was maintaining the momentum a high priority?

         

        Kate: Definitely. We slowed right down in rehearsal to get the detail in but we always had our eye on pace and the confidence with which the ideas develop. It’s acrobatics in some ways, part of the joy is watching them leap from one idea to the next without stopping. Dneister (Leander Deeny) talks for seven minutes without stopping at the beginning of the play and that in itself; to talk ceaselessly and hold the attention of those listening, is a daring feat, especially when the ideas are so complex. Then the barber (Christian Patterson) joins and seems at first to be much simpler and slower but he very quickly builds his own pace and the whole show feels almost like a running race, exploding into physical action with the destruction of the shop.

         

        Q: When the material that is being performed in front of you is as intense as Blasted, the space suddenly becomes very theatrically claustrophobic but for The Dying of Today, the chess board floor manipulates the size of the performance area and it feels deceptively bigger. Has it been a challenge to make the best of such a small space? In this case, what inspired the retro fifties salon? I loved the concept of the audience being the reflection of what we were watching as we sat waiting in anticipation for the news ourselves.

         

        Kate: I definitely wanted the space to feel radically different for each show in the season and for it to be as exciting to walk into The Dying of Today as it was for Blasted, when the audience were seeing the theatre for the first time since the conversion. The 1950’s feel was about tying to distil the essence of a barber’s – a sort of reference that everyone would recognise. We tried to references various time periods throughout to stop the play feeling ‘set’ in a time or place but we also really wanted it to feel like a real shop, that was very important, that these enormous ideas unfolded in this very prosaic environment. But it had a bit of romance too, which was partly about searching for a bit of softness after the rawness of Blasted.

         

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         Alun Saunders’ A Good Clean Heart (2015)

        The final play in the season was a newly commissioned bilingual work by Alun Saunders, a Welsh writer from Neath who trained as an actor at the RWCMD. A Good Clean Heart addresses a number of challenging questions about our cultural and personal identity but this is a truly unique piece of theatre for its ambitious and playful engagement with language. The play follows the story of two brothers raised in different cultures and familial environments; Hefin, adopted in Wales, well educated and a first-language Welsh speaker and Jay his older brother now living in London with his biological mother who they were originally taken away from. When Hefin is finally told on his eighteenth birthday of a sibling who has been reaching out to him, in a moment of spontaneity he initiates the long awaited meet where the pair struggle to come to terms with the years they have lost. Along with the discovery of his English roots, Hefin is introduced to his brother at a rather inconvenient time with the police waiting for an opportunity to bring Jay back in. The reunited family home is thrown into chaos where mother and sons are forced to make decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.

        A Good Clean Heart- A Close Up with Alun Saunders

        Q: Firstly, llongyfarchiadau on the incredible success that you have had with ‘A Good Clean Heart’. You must be thrilled with its critical reception?

         

        Alun: Diolch! Thrilled is definitely one of the words… It’s a pretty overwhelming thing pouring your heart into a play without actually knowing how people are going to react. Did I say ‘overwhelming’? I mean terrifying. I imagine even seasoned Writers find it scary putting their work out there for public consumption as they’re under a different sort of pressure – the pressure to ‘keep up the good work’. For me, writing my first full-length play, I wanted to see whether what I had to say, and how I choose to say it, had a place in that public arena. The public and critical reception has absolutely spurred me on to knuckle down and write more. I’m really grateful.

         

        Q: When you were addressing the notion of identity, it came across as a very fluid concept. I loved the intricate ways that this was incorporated into the script with James Ifan and Dorian Simpson jumping into the role of their mother and her boyfriend, drawing out that play on identity crisis. Whilst a national identity is a necessary central focus of the script, were you conscious to avoid restricting the definition of identity?

         

        Alun: Abso-blinkin’-lutely. Having done a good bit of research into how people felt (and how strongly they felt) about their own ‘national identity’, I got such a varied response – some people aren’t bothered at all by it, where some people feel that it absolutely defines who they are. The important thing for me is that people are unique; stereotypes exist, but always with an element of contradiction (I’ve actually been called “a boy full of contradictions” myself). Whilst we constantly try to ‘order’ and categorise other people in order to help ourselves sort the ‘friendly /attractive/ positive’ from the ‘unfriendly/unattractive/negative’, nobody can decide our identity except ourselves. It was important that the characters of Hefin and Jay had a strong identity – even if that changed during the play – and that the audience were allowed to come to their own conclusions.

         

        Q: Finally, in addition to the demanding technical work needed to create that bilingual accessibility, there was also a lot of visual play on language to the point that the words were literally bouncing of the walls. Was the animation of language and the bringing language to life something you enjoyed physically constructing?

         

        Alun: From quite early on in the development of A Good Clean Heart, Kate Wasserberg and  Mared Swain  the plays director and I had discussions about the technical possibilities of this play. It’s been such a huge collaboration of ideas and skills to bring what was eventually seen to life, and I just feel honoured that so many people’s hard work created this success. For my part, I needed to create characters which the actors (and subsequently, the audience) could believe in, and a story and dialogue to channel that. I was always conscious, whilst writing, of the technical possibilities, so I was interested to see how we could bring a letter, an email and an online chat to life on stage, but the focus was always on where the story was going. Especially by Draft 14…

         

        Kate: Huge praise is due to Zak Hein, who designed the animation, including the subtitling. He worked with Mared to create an incredibly bold visual language for the play that made the bilingualism a joy and also made the show very youthful. I think it worked brilliantly.

         

        Alun: As a Playwright, writing my first full-length play under Kate and Mared’s mentoring has been invaluable. I’ve been pushed to the limits (and beyond) of what I thought I could manage, but seeing the end result has been worth every last blistered typing finger, every tear and 4am coffee. Had I given up four or five drafts ago then my life may, theoretically, have been ‘easier’, but the play we’d have ended up with would have been much weaker for it. I’m really grateful to those whip-cracking slave-drivers for believing in me, and for pushing me to get where we all wanted – only then could we justify the whole team’s hard work. Now to decide where we take it next…

        A Final Word on the Season’s success…

         Q: The Other Room has clearly hit Cardiff by storm, you must be very happy with the overall response to the first season?

         

        Kate: Of course, we are and incredibly touched and grateful that so many people have supported the project – by coming to the shows, spreading the word and bringing people along. We are so proud to be part of this fantastic city and hope to continue to be worthy of our brilliant audience.

         

        Q: What can we expect next, are there big plans in the pipeline?

         

        Kate: We are putting the finishing touches on our next season and I’m deep into programming 2016. Some very exciting plans and a new way of working – we’ll keep you posted!

         

        The Other Room will be hosting its first Young Arts Festival from 18-20th June where young talents will be showcased through a series of short plays written and performed by all those participating in the week’s festivities. For more information visit: http://www.otherroomtheatre.com/en/whats-on/current-productions/

         

        A huge thank you to Kate and Alun for taking time out of their busy schedules for Young Critics.

         

         

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          Review Peter Pan WNO by Rebecca Hobbs

           

          In Flight, Wendy (Mariet Arnet), Michael (Rebecca Bottone) and John (Nicholas Sharat) on their way to Neverland. Photography credit: Clive Bardat

           Music by Richard Ayres

          Libretto by Lavinia Greenlaw

          Directed by Keith Warner
          Conducted by Erik Nielsen

          J.M Barrie’s literary classic Peter Pan has been transformed into a whole spectrum of genres. From numerous film and television adaptations, to Broadway, comedy and even video game; now the magical story of a boy who never wanted to grow up has been reworked into a family targeted opera. As part of their ‘A Terrible Innocence’ summer season, directed by Keith Warner, the WNO have had pillow fights, dressed as pirates and Indians and have even worked with a flight choreographer but despite the chorus and orchestra’s best efforts, the material they are working with struggles to take off.

           

          Visually complying with Barrie’s description of Pan as ‘the little white bird’, counter tenor Iestyn Morris all shimmered up is flighty and graceful. His fluent falsetto provides an unsettling juxtaposition with his growly spoken voice and embodies a Peter Pan with a slightly unpleasant edge full of spontaneity and arrogance who is unusually detached from the three children he brings to Neverland. Both Mrs Darling (Hilary Summers) and Wendy’s (Marie Arnet) arias are musical flourishes that break through but neither character is given much room to develop.

           

          If a little crazed, Ayre’s full-bodied score, performed masterfully by the WNO orchestra under Erik Nielson’s hand, is an exploratory idea platform that I could appreciate but one that is hardly accessible to children as the themes just aren’t there. He incorporates essence of Gilbert and Sulivan with the pirates sea shanty and draws strong parallels with the likes of Stravinsky and Janáček but the vibrancy and anarchic intensity does not always fit with Lavinia Greenlaw’s slightly stagnated libretto. The WNO chorus work tirelessly but soloists were on occasion overpowered by the full-bodied nature of the score and I found myself searching for the subtitles to clarify what was actually being sang. My attention was often drawn to the interesting things going on in orchestra pit where the addition of the ticking clock sounds and the inventive concept of sawing on wood during the creation of Wendy’s story house joins sight and sound together, giving it an animated quality.

           

          Creating Neverland from the children’s nursery, the parallel world production is colourful and childlike with its jack in the box James Hook (Ashley Holland) who despite fulfilling the role of dastardly pantomime villain provides snippets of comedic light. The novel and entertaining old grandfather clock that progressively transforms into the hungry crocodile will have appealed to a younger audience but the stage feels too cluttered, obstructed with children’s alphabet blocks that seem to get in the way of the fight scenes. Imagination and potential is there but the child’s vision of the world is lost. Instead, we’re offered an adult’s reconstruction of a child’s world restricted by the nursery set up and shadowed by constant allusions to the darker sub structure of Barrie’s work. The numerous re-imaginings of the train remind us of Peter Llewellyn-Davies’ suicide, one of the boys who inspired the author’s protagonist Peter Pan with the station sign for Sloane Square at the beginning making this an overtly clear reference. However, I did like the contemporary concept of the pirate ship as a London Underground train.

           

          With too little in Act One, there is consequently far too much material in Act Two to develop any characters. It really felt like the ticking croc was chasing the performance the whole way through either to hurry it up or slow it down. Despite my indifference, as an introduction to opera, the WNO have done a fantastic job of encouraging families to experience a musical genre that for too long has been unfairly restricted by elitist clichés. By hosting workshops, introductory talks, doing face painting and creating an affordable family solution, children of all ages flocked in to the Donald Gordon theatre to experience something new but whether it hooked its target audience is something that is yet to be determined by the feedback from the families to come.

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            Review Bara Bread Theatr Gwalia Chapter Arts Centre by Rebecca Hobbs

            Bara-Bread

            This week, playwright Carmen Medway-Stephens’ ‘Bara Bread’ starts its run at the Stiwdio at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

            In little Lovenny, due to the passing of Nettie’s mother, the heart and soul of the village, Nettie (Sarah-Jayne Hopkins), is brought back to her childhood roots, a far cry from the city slick fast paced society she now knows. Left for her on the kitchen table is a book of recipes that her mother had put together as a parting gift with a note that reads ‘let us bake bread together’. As Nettie scatters her mothers ashes and makes the mother dough it becomes clear that her abandoned culinary skills are dusty. However, through feeding the mother dough, the bread maker’s answer to the alchemist’s ‘the philosophers stone’, a little magic is sifted into the mix and the understated kitchen table becomes an emblem of hope and honesty where the bread is broken, secrets are shared, barriers are brought down and relationships are rekindled. It becomes clear that the steps of making bread mirror the steps taken in our own lives.

            This exploratory narrative of magical realism takes us back to the mode of storytelling where these women’s lives and challenging experiences are shared with one other. Womanism is a term that is rooted in black women’s culture but it is a phrase of solidarity and one that strikes a chord with Carmen Medway-Stephens’ script. The creation of these five women in a little Welsh corner of the globe interacting by creating bread together is the reflected image in Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple of the female community sewing the quilt together, fashioning a unified and supported life for themselves. There is Mair (Olwen Rees) who is discovered to be a larger than life female vicar whose path has faced many challenges, Lara (Saran Morgan), the village’s typical teenage disaster, an endearing young mum who spends her benefits on nappies and a night out in Swansea, Annabel (Michelle McTernan), the village ‘intruder’, botox blitzed and money grabbing and Maggie (Louise Collins), the widowed shepherdess, a recluse who has lost touch with her womanhood since her husband passed away. Despite appearances, as they open up to each other it is clear that life has consumed them all and as they sit kneading the dough together, (like the art of making a good loaf) they share, prove, nurture, feed their souls and grow together.

            Alongside a subtle and sensitive soundtrack (with the exception of an unnecessary addition of ‘You raise me up’ at the end), Chris Morgan’s direction is intuitive and fluid; despite the simple home set-up it is a very challenging performance to choreograph. Watching these women physically create this process, you can almost smell the bread cooking. The interactions between these characters are fittingly comical and the concept of born and bred Welsh heritage is aptly personified but the narrative excels because of its strong cast. Michelle McTernan, Olwen Rees, Louise Collins, Sarah-Jayne Hopkins and Saran Morgan bring Carmen Medway-Stephens’ fresh and actively engaging script to life.’

            Bara Bread’ raises your spirits, touches your heart and makes you hungry for more.

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              Review A Good Clean Heart, The Other Room By Rebecca Hobbs

              Alun Saunders –A Good Clean Heart

              I to the world am like a drop of water
              That in the ocean seeks another drop,
              Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
              Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
              So I, to find a mother and a brother,

              In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.

              (The Comedy of Errors I.ii.33)

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              Dorian Simpson (Jay) and James Ifan (Hefin)

              Credit:Pallasca photography

              At a time of political uncertainty as the 2015 election looms ever closer, Alun Saunders’ bilingual play A Good Clean Heart, presented by The Other Room could not be more relevant to its contemporary moment. Welsh manifestos are overridden with promises in relation to the promotion and savouring of the Welsh language, its place in education and our culture. Plaid Cymru wave the banner for our nation, striving to give Wales its own identity but what is it exactly that defines that nationality? I am not a Welsh speaker and yet I pride myself on being Welsh.

              Reviving the sibling separation motif of Shakespearean comedy, A Good Clean Heart addresses these difficult questions regarding our cultural and personal identity through the story of two brothers raised in different cultures and familial environments; Hefin (James Ifan) adopted in Wales, well-educated and a first-language Welsh speaker and Jay (Dorian Simpson) trapped in the foster system having never had the opportunity to make the best of himself, living in London with his biological mother (who he was initially taken from) after doing a stint in jail.

              Rather than moving the story towards the pastoral as Shakespearean comedy anticipates, Saunders inverts the motif and the green world is thrust into the city as Hefin is finally told on his eighteenth birthday of a brother who has been reaching out to him for years. Immediately, in a moment of spontaneity, he heads to London for the long-awaited – on Jay’s part – reunion. For Hefin, the Welsh language is an intrinsic part of who he is, even his career prospects are defined by his national identity. Along with the discovery of his English roots, despite the brothers’ almost instantaneous fraternal bond, they struggle to come to terms with the years and opportunities they have missed. The reunited family home is thrown into chaos and brings disastrous consequences.

              The sincerity in Saunders script is particularly moving. The developing relationship between Hefin and Jay is sensitive and intuitive and both actors shine in their juxtaposed roles. Dorian Simpson as Jay is loveable and endearing despite these challenging assumptions he adopts as the brother who was left behind and his Welsh counterpart James Ifan comically captures the stereotypically sheltered and innocent character of a boy growing up in rural Wales. Both Dorian and James’s ability to jump between characters playing their mother and her current boyfriend is effortless and a nice touch which invokes that movement of identity.

              The play’s separation and re-unification motif is rejuvenated through Erin Maddocks’s transformation of the room into a playground, a moment of nostalgia that revives the boys lost childhood. Mared Swain’s visual interpretation of language through projections and screen is creative and original as the script literally bounces off the walls, bringing to life that movement of language. The tech team really have their work cut out!

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              A funny, moving and thought-provoking play that brings a new accessibility to a bilingual narrative. A perfect way to round-up the ‘Life in Close Up’ season in the capital city of Wales.

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                Review Mermaid, Shared Experience, Sherman Theatre by Rebecca Hobbs

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                Miranda Mac Letten, Amaka Okafor, Sarah Twomey, Ritu Arya and Polly Frame

                Photography by Robert Day

                 Writer and director Polly Teale’s Mermaid dives into the realm of feminist fairytales, embellishing the script with metaphors about finding a voice or a sense of self and struggling to break away from the the media’s artificial construct of beauty.  In a cross between the Angela Carter esque allusions to blood stained sheets and the mutilation of Lavinia in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the Little Mermaid’s rite of passage into a woman is a far cry from Hans Christian Anderson’s childhood classic.

                Beneath the ocean waves, life is not tarnished by the modern world’s inflictions and agendas. It is simple and carefree but the human world is too excessive in drumming its disillusioning message into us with the Prince whose post traumatic stress mirrors drowning, a cyber bullying attack and a media exposed bulimia case.  The little mermaid’s transition into a woman is witnessed by both the audience and a chorus of young girls didactically onlooking and partaking from the side of the stage, joining in the siren’s song.

                Beautifully choreographed by Liz Ranken, the mermaids fluid movements are mesmerising. They do not need the shimmering tail to glide over the waves. The Little Mermaid’s (Sarah Twomey) movement is exquisite and her counterpart Blue (Natalie Gavin) balances this well with a heartfelt spoken performance. The calculated three-headed sea witch (Ritu Arya, Miranda Mac Letten and Amaka Okafor) is grossly captivating and the cast all really embrace this unusual merging of both physical and text-based theatre.

                The symbiotic relationship between Blue and the Little Mermaid, Anderson’s tale and a contemporary growing up narrative feels somewhat hazy. I found that the production drowned out the script and because of this the complexity of what the script is trying to do is drowned out but this new material’s originality and ambition shows huge potential. A brave and inspired retelling.

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                  Review The Dying of Today The Other Room By Rebecca Hobbs

                  Much like an enthralling cinema experience when you consequently fail to reach the bottom of your popcorn, when a production at The Other Room comes to a close and you still have half a pint left, it is a sure sign that the performance has won you over. Set in a barber’s shop in just one act with two actors, the second production in the ‘Life in Close Up’ season is every bit as challenging as Sarah Kane’s brutal ‘Blasted’.

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                  Leander Deeny and Christian Patterson

                  Credit: Pallasca photography

                  Specifically inspired by Thucydides’s account of the destruction of the Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian War when the navy and the Athenian army suffers a merciless and colossal defeat, Howard Barker’s The Dying of Today is an unfettered examination of that anxiety induced moment of inevitability, considering the worst case scenario and discovering how we are meant to process the phenomenon that is ‘bad news’.

                  Director Kate Wasserberg’s attention to detail is meticulous; the elegant transactions between the two characters allow both the bearer and hearer to feed off one another’s energy. Once again, she shatters the fourth wall and this time the audience becomes the mirror. We are the onlookers of this intimate moment, fittingly captivated in anticipation of the bad news ourselves and whilst this relates to an historical event, the scenario is timeless. Is it not reminiscent of how we respond to the sensationalist media of today? Even as a child I remember the moment that the 9/11 news hit and I can picture what I was doing and how the news was delivered of the London Bombings by the school librarian in an English lesson.

                  Dressed for a holiday with a touch of Hollywood glamour, the lonely traveller Leander Deeny as the  bearer of bad news is quirky and charismatic. In his opening speech he wittingly and superficially luxuriates in the imminent moment of revealing the earth-shattering broadcast. The pleasure that the bearer gets as he revels in his artistry or in this case, the barber’s emotionally charged telling is both comical and curiously unsettling. As the revelation is played out, Christian Patterson demonstrates his versatility as an actor. Far from the grossly abhorrent character in Blasted, the barber’s experimentation with grief and revelation is incredibly intuitive and calls out for sympathy. The outbursts of overwhelming sorrow and emotionally charged rage were chilling yet the barber maintains dignity and has a tenderness that even manages to reach the most misunderstood bearer as fleeting moments of compassion break through his cold exterior.

                  In the final five minutes as the resigned barber returns his dismantled shop to the picture of normality, the artistry is at its best. The amalgamation of music and the symbolic play on the chess board set is profoundly moving and perfectly sums up Barker’s tragic poetry.

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                    Review Everyman Measure for Measure ‘perfect platform to showcase our local talent’ by Rebecca Hobbs

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                    And now I give my sensual race the rein: Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite’

                    (Measure for Measure, Act II.iv.)

                    Set in vice riddled Vienna in the dirty suburbs where the city folk latch onto carnal desires, Measure for Measure is a work of debauchery, hypocrisy and deceit. Rising from the gutters, the Everyman Theatre’s traditional retelling is a thoroughly enjoyable and well interpreted Shakespearean rendition. As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages programme, Cardiff’s Everyman Theatre has had the opportunity to work with professionals from the company and this insight is distinctively present in the performance. The leading actors and actresses demonstrate a clear understanding of the complex issues that arise in this unsettling comedy.

                    Reduced to a simple and understated set and a series of brief early modern musical interludes, this stripped down traditional interpretation purely relies on acting ability to carry it and the cast do a commendable job. The bawdy brothel scenes are vigorously entertaining and could have been given slightly more stage time. The low lighting in the brothel and prison scenes adds to the dingy squalor but in court, I found the lighting to be severe at times and slightly off putting.

                    In the play’s contrasting moments of comedic vulgarity and abhorrence, the Duke’s air of pomposity and trickery is suitably inflated by Brian Smith and the moronic Elbow, skin crawling Lucio and cheeky chappie Pompey (Arnold Phillips, Philip Jones and Dan Burrows) bring the light-hearted scenes to life. Aroused by prohibition, Angelo’s (Andreas Constantinou) moral recklessness and coldness adds a sinister edge to the production. In particular, in Act IV when he attacks Isabella (Carey Barley) in a frenzy of erotic desire, as the scene progresses, the duo’s acting is at its best. Barley’s performance is particularly professional.

                    When all the cast appear on stage for the final scene, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and the company’s love of performing really shines through. This group of passionate and talented individuals tackle Shakespeare’s work admirably. Chapter Arts Centre is the perfect platform to showcase our local talent.

                     

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