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Review The Importance of Being Earnest, Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

There are certain smells that have the power to transport you to a certain place. Before the action had even started on the stage of the Anthony Hopkins theatre, I found myself standing in the middle of a bookshop, browsing the shelves and in my element. Clearly, the ingredients for the opening scene – consisting of an oak desk, antique tea trolley, red leather sofa and chipped wood wall panelling – had combined to create a most evocative scent. It was the perfect metaphor for my relationship with The Importance of Being Earnest. Suddenly, this play, which I had only previously encountered on paper, was coming to life right before my eyes, and in glorious detail too.

The costume department at Theatr Clwyd has once again excelled in creating the most exquisite outfits. The actors look positively fabulous, and the periodic detail is simply sublime. They capture the regal nature of the Victorian aristocracy perfectly: elegant, smart and, particularly in the case of Lady Bracknell, excessive. The Scenic Artists have clearly been inspired to compliment these gorgeous outfits with some spectacular scenery. In Act II especially, the Manor House garden is breathtaking. With huge green hedges and colourful flower beds, it is a wonder the stage is big enough to fit it all in. It is a real work of art, worthy of a horticultural (never mind theatrical) award.

Thankfully, this colourful production also contains some vibrant acting. It is not just the brilliance of Oscar Wilde’s script that is hugely affecting. The addition of physical expression means that the wit and wisdom contained within it are greatly enhanced. The humour is at times bitingly satirical, at times far more slapstick. Yet whether it is the mannerisms of Matt Jessup as John Worthing, the animated physicality of Nick Harris (Merriman), or the snobbish ignorance with which Hilary Maclean plays Lady Bracknell, this production certainly delivers on comedic value. It is infectiously enjoyable, in part from the fact that the entire cast seem to be taking such pleasure in performing Wilde’s work. They never seem to be overindulging in this opportunity though. They embody their characters brilliantly, and the strength of relationship between them is evident.

This seems a timeless play. One hundred years on, it still feels fresh. I still meet people today who care deeply about their public appearance, their social status and financial expression. It also feels like a timely political play too. One wonders, at least from media portrayals, whether today’s politicians aren’t the spitting image of Wilde’s characters. In both cases, director Richard Fitch has hit on something which makes this production enjoyably and humorously infectious. It is a beautiful production. A treat for the eyes, ears and (for me at least) the nose.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Review Scarlett at Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

There is much to love in Scarlett. This one act play is short and sweet. Yet don’t think it lacks depth. It tackles issues of identity, family and death in a very humorous and conversational way. Part of its appeal lies in the relationships between the three generations of women onstage – protagonist Scarlett, her daughter Lydia, and her overbearing mother Bette. Scarlett is having some kind of midlife crisis. Or is it? Whatever her reasons, she has decided to travel from London to rural Wales in search of a new place to live. The small stage represents a patch of Welsh countryside, on which sit two rocks and a dilapidated stone building. This building appears to be the perfect place for Scarlett (played by Kate Ashfield) to start a new life for herself. This is in spite of local landowner Eria (Lynn Hunter) insisting it’s a chapel, and Lydia and Bette referring to it as nothing more than a shed.

Writer Colette Kane uses these differences of opinion to create a very witty, sometimes poignant, script. The dialogue is often rapid. The characterisation is scarily familiar. I could see elements of my own family in all three generations of women, yet this only added to the humour. Joanna Bacon is superb as Scarlett’s demanding and self-righteous mother. There is a fierce outer shell yet an inner vulnerability to Lydia which Bethan Cullinane manages to balance effortlessly well. As for Scarlett herself, Ashfield has landed a strong and empowering role. She commands the stage, not imperiously, but simply by embodying the character so well. There is no doubt that this effervescent and strong-willed woman is the central figure in a play that is not afraid to speak plainly about sex, status and self-worth from a wholly-female perspective.

Kane’s script can be very subtle in its character arcs. I say this because the characters can feel fully formed when we first meet them, yet over the course of the play, there is a change in their outlook and perspective. This is not always obvious. Sometimes, the change is too subtle. When the lights came up and the cast took their bows, I admit that I was slightly surprised. I was expecting an interval, to stay with these characters beyond 75 minutes. It is testament to Kane that they became so familiar and likeable, yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was more of their story to tell. As a result, I left feeling slightly dissatisfied: not what I wanted to feel.

Scarlett is a play hardwired in reality. It deals with identity and relationships in a very unassuming, conversational way. I don’t think it’s a standout production, but it certainly feels relevant. It may be short and sweet, but it has a lot to say about life, love and loss.

SCARLETT

Review Junkyard: A New Musical at Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Please don’t misunderstand me when I say that Junkyard: A New Musical is a load of rubbish. It is by no means of poor quality, lacking in characterisation, or short on story. I am actually making reference to the dynamic and inventive set. It is made (almost entirely) of waste material: planks of wood, old tyres, thick blue twine. It is a representation of the ‘Adventure Playground’, an idea pioneered in the 1960s and ‘70s. It provided a space for kids to call their own, where they could embrace risk and unleash their creativity.

Writer and director Jack Thorne has made this the setting for his latest production, having been inspired by his father, Mick. As one of the first play leaders at an adventure playground in Bristol, Thorne pays tribute to him in the character of Rick. Played by Calum Callaghan, Rick is a laid-back, rather soft man who, nevertheless, has a big heart. He wants to build a ‘Junk Playground’ in Bristol and hopes to get a group of teenagers involved in the process. However, this rowdy group of misfits prove more challenging than expected. What follows is a tragi-comic story as the lives of these young people become inextricably entwined in the building of this unconventional structure.

Leading this group of kids is Fiz, an outspoken and confident young lady played to perfection by Erin Doherty. Doherty is a delight to watch. Utterly captivating, she makes Fiz an instantly loveable personality. Full of humour and expressive action, Doherty allows just the right amount of vulnerability to seep through. Her performance is enhanced by an incredibly strong supporting cast. Each brings such life and vitality to their characters that one could easily mistake this for a social documentary. I recognise in the passionate anger of Ginger (Josef Davies), the stuttering speech of Talc (Enyi Okoronkwo), and the crude insults of Higgy (Jack Riddiford), traits not only from my own teenage years but personalities that I came across during my own time as a (not very good) youth worker.

It is testament to the performances and quality of writing that one looks upon this as a marvellous work of social commentary. Yet what enhances this production to make it, in my opinion, a five-star play is the effective use of lighting and music. The opening sequence, repeated later in the play, is mesmerising. The use of torches and lighters immediately captures your attention and from then on, you are hooked. Stage-side throughout is a live band; always a winner in my book, but what makes this particular piece of musical theatre stand out is its intriguing blend of speech and lyrics. It uses a similar technique to the sung verbatim in London Road, yet here it is largely the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters that are sung as part of a more traditional narrative script.

There is plenty of humour in Junkyard. Some people may find the language a bit too crude or near-the-knuckle at times. There is also quite a lot of swearing. Again, some people might find this excessive. But I think it adds real charm to the whole thing. Its sense of realism cannot be questioned. It is a really immersive piece of theatre. It is challenging too. It makes you reconsider the very notion of what a playground is, how it is treated, and who it’s for.

Junkyards may be a load of rubbish, but this one is a work of art.

Junkyard – A New Musical