Review, Operation Julie, Theatr na nÓg, The Riverfront, Newport

 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

I’m not sure what to expect as I take my seat at The Riverfront in Newport. A tree trunk branching over a stage set with psychedelic colours and ready for a rock gig is the perfect set for this show. The true story of the greatest drugs bust in history bursts onto the stage with its actor-musician performers alive with energy and blowing the roof off the theatre, even in the opening number.

The loveable cast of characters are introduced through their instrumental solos; an eclectic mix of guitars, percussion, cow bell, oboe and more. They switch between instruments, being ‘in the band’ and in the show and even between characters with poise and speed, costumes change in the blink of an eye, accents alter and even the stage crew are in costume, moving the set on and off stage. This means we are instantly transported back to the events of 1975 and 1977 in rural West Wales, the music mixing perfectly with the sometimes barmy, but always heartfelt plot.

The action opens with Londoner, Richard Kemp in his lab, mixing his latest batch of acid, the one that will cause a catalyst that he hopes will change the world. The couple of Richard and Christine are excellently played by Joseph Tweedale and Georgina White and their singing voices are amazing; ethereal in places, singing the prog rock score with ease. From there, we are catapulted into the lives of Smiles and Buzz with a hilarious section of Buzz driving Smiles to pick up his acid from various locations. Gerry accompanies them in a surreal yet side splitting section, where we feel ourselves swerving with the ‘car’ as Buzz spins the wheel. More excellent voices and fantastic comedic chops come from Daniel Carter-Hope, Sion Russell Jones and Dan Bottomley.

We visit the various other locations of the story including the police station where the ‘chameleon’ of the piece Phylip Harries delights us as PC Evans (he also plays Wil Bach and Wright throughout the rest of the tale). The scenes alongside Kieran Bailey as Richie Parry are so well executed, the lines pacey and thick with local references that the audience love. Richie is the perfect opposite to Steve Simmond’s cockney copper, Dick Lee. They’re like the original odd couple, colliding worlds, and personalities in their efforts to execute the largest drugs bust in history. A highlight for me, (without spoiling the surprise), is Steve’s musical number at the end of act one; he definitely got the audience rocking! Finally, Caitlin Lavagna gives a multi-role masterclass as she switches roles (and costumes!) with ease between landlady, Sgt Julie, Meg and Anne Parry.

These talented performers navigate the material with ease, expertly directed by Geinor Styles, who also wrote the show after interviewing a range of people who lived through the events, including Smiles himself and Anne Parry, Richie’s long suffering wife. This lends an authenticity to the piece; the characters live and breathe on the stage, brought to life through excellent writing. The musical direction also brings out the best in this talented cast, the music of the time brought to life by Greg Palmer.

The show is very funny, but at the heart of it all is a story which pulls us right back to the modern-day issues we are facing now. Kemp’s moving speech at the end, intended for his court case, but never delivered, is poignant; emphasised by the images projected behind him as he speaks. This movement was not only about the drugs; it was so much more; it was the start of a revolution intended to make people sit up and listen to the very real world issues starting back in the 70s and that we are now facing in 2024.

I was sorry I missed this when it toured in 2022, so I am thrilled I got to catch it this time. This psychedelic, surreal, trip of a musical play makes us laugh, makes us feel joy but is counterbalanced with this powerful message that we are left with as the music fades. The real-life Smiles sums it up perfectly; hoping the play hits the right chords of the serious issues that the LSD was trying to tackle, but also hoping that the sheer joy of the time is captured. I think the audience members would definitely agree that Operation Julie hits these targets and a lot more. Catch it if you can on this limited 8-week tour!

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