A triumphant return to Welsh theatre for Rhys Ifans as Ed Thomas’ semi-autobiographical play On Bear Ridge opens at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.(4 / 5)
National Theatre Wales’ collaboration with Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone and renowned Welsh writer Ed Thomas (Hinterland) summoned a well-earned standing ovation last night at the Sherman Theatre. Prompted by its flawless cast and beautifully poetic script, the audience rose to its feet to applaud this intriguing new play.
Set in the forgotten village of Bear Ridge, our characters John Daniel (Rhys Ifans) and Noni (Raki Ayola) own an unfrequented butcher shop where the food is scarce, the whiskey has run dry and a harsh snowdrift has barred them from the rest of civilisation. Joined only by their slaughter man (Sion Daniel Young), the pair dance to songs from long ago and tell stories unearthed from their fading memories. They are very much alone, until they are joined by a strange figure lost in the snow (Jason Hughes).
The play feels like a Beckettian meditation on the importance of our memories, how remembering our past and our heritage can offer up some comfort in a recklessly fast-paced world. As put by John Daniels, ‘If my memories go, how can I still be John Daniels?’ The same goes for the community of Bear Ridge that has been stripped from existence through some sort of catastrophic event, their memory of the once thriving community is the only comfort that keeps John Daniel and Noni alive.
Ed Thomas’ lyrical text reaches epic heights. He immerses the audience in the play’s vivid imagery, all the while skilfully meandering between gut-wrenching dialogue and quick-witted humour. Rhys Ifans as John Daniel demonstrates impeccable comedic timing as he punctures through the heavier parts of the play with wit and verve. Every word the characters speak are imbued with a sense of importance and each line is delivered with care and tact by the play’s brilliant cast.
Thomas and Featherstone join force in co-directing the play. Their direction is slick and all aspects of the performance are visually arresting. A mention must go to the impeccable lighting design by Elliot Griggs (An Octoroon, Pomona, Fleabag) and set design by Cai Dyfan (Violence and Son, Hinterland). The isolation of the characters is made clear through a coming together of the lighting and set design as Bear Ridge is made to feel like a desolate floating otherworld, plonked in the middle of the Sherman Theatre for its audience to observe. What results is a sense of admiration for the tenaciousness of our characters to keep going, even through the most solitary of hardships.