There will be no new theatrical professionals in the future without development programmes. These programmes are problematic because the work that comes out through them is bound to be variable. Yet, just as investment clubs throw money at funds supporting collections of start-up businesses, in the hope that the one that comes good will offset the losses incurred on the duds, a theatre initiating a development programme hopes to be able to mine a new vein of artistic talent.
‘Truth’ or ‘Dare’ are representative of Theatr Clwyd’s investment in its local community. Each consists of five short plays, written by freelancers, performed by two teams of ten actors. The plays are given the full treatment, with two directors and two associate directors, two stage managers and two deputies and a good-sized creative team. No expense is spared.
You might think this would be high risk. Will anyone travel to see new work by unknown writers being staged on a Thursday night in a small town in north west Wales? Isn’t there a danger of having more people on stage than in the auditorium? This can happen but fortunately it doesn’t happen in Mold. Because of Theatr Clwyd’s reputation and its well established relationship with its audience, they turn out to see what is going on (including people who are still the right side of forty). Thus, on the Press Night for ‘Truth’ and ‘Dare’ there were well over a hundred people in attendance. The makeshift space, The Mix, Theatr Clwyd is using while its main house is being refurbished, was over three quarters full. The Mayor was there in person, too, wearing the chain of office.
The audience enjoyed the double bill. They laughed long and loud. They clapped vigorously. They cheered and gave the casts of both groups of plays a standing ovation. It was quite a night and refreshing to experience so much open enthusiasm and support. It wasn’t unlike being at a football match when the home team wins.
That said, I think what appealed most to the audience were the performers. The evening became a show case for the actors and the creative team behind them, i.e. they fully repaid the investment. I felt, however, that the performers were better than the material they were working with. I couldn’t understand the connections between the plays and Truth or Dare, for example, and I couldn’t find the comic centre or the joke in most of them. I missed the point of One Stop Short and didn’t see why a stuffed teddy duck had replaced a dog in This Time Next Week. I felt there was an absence of plot And The Crowd Goes Boom.
This could have been down to my lack of perception but what the actors were doing, on the other hand, I could relate to completely. They managed to extract every last drop of potential from what they had been given. Every traditional theatrical gag was included, up to and including ‘Take a Chair’ – (Exit with chair) (groan).
What the audience got was a high-octane display of the art of coarse acting which, in some cases, took farce to a new level. One feature of this was the incorporation of objects provided by the audience for the cast to use as key props. These objects had not been seen before the night, so the actors were required to improvise to incorporate them quickly into the scripts. Cue much mirth as a doorknob became a murder weapon and a toilet roll became a prized personal possession.
Perhaps it’s unfair to pick out individual performances, because the evening favoured the comics over their straight supporters, but Seren Vickers was astonishingly daft as James Bond in drag; Laura Dalgleish managed to do things with a dowsing stick that I can’t describe and Geraint Edwards managed to completely reinvent the whole business of sales and marketing. These three weren’t just over the top. They were somewhere else entirely. Leilah Hughes as an all singing, all dancing Barbie was not far behind them.
Whilst the plays themselves were a mixed bag of different styles and approaches, there were two – The Wake and Bwgan (The Ghoul) – which stood out by being more or less naturalistic. The former was a set piece in which two sisters argue over what they will each inherit from their (toilet roll fixated) mother. The latter was a kind of ghost story in Welsh, which provided Betson Llwyd with the opportunity to be suitably ghoulish and to perform a bravura solo monologue. The fluent Welsh she spoke added atmosphere and musicality to the story, as I don’t speak I inevitably had to look away from what was being done on stage to read the subtitles on the overhead screen. Lisa Jen Brown contributed a lot to the success of both these pieces.
The language of Bwgan and the approach adopted in the other plays, up to and including the audience participation, has its limits, however. I’m not convinced this programme could transfer or tour and enjoy the same level of success as it had at Theatr Clwyd. In the end, although it was enjoyable, it wasn’t very original. What I would like to see personally is the same level of talent and commitment invested in plays that capture the imagination. There are short comic plays by Chekov and O’Casey that would really come to life with this cast’s energy. The treatment could also be applied to work by Ionesco and more recent comic dramatists like Dario Fo. This creative team could easily tackle longer classic plays by Moliere or Goldoni.
Finally, it would also be good to see serious work – drama that is disturbing and intellectually challenging – replacing the preoccupation with going for laughs, which is something of an easy way out.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare the programme with material by the greatest European playwrights and it’s beside the point. What one would hope, though, is that Theatr Clwyd’s development programme does succeed in unearthing writers and scripts which will allow them to get beyond providing their audience with light entertainment and just tickling their fancies. On the basis of the good things that were in this double bill, that should be well within the theatre’s capabilities.