Around a year ago it was announced that Cardiff’s Winter Wonderland would be relocating to the historical Cardiff Castle (due to COVID concerns) and so I and a few friends thought that we would walk through the city center dressed as Santa and his usual companions. Apart from the excited faces of children running up to tell us they have been good this year, the actual event was extremely disappointing! The skating was frequently closed and reopened due to transmission rates and the majority of stalls were closed with those that were open were mostly selling the same thing. Therefore when it was announced that a festive festival would be landing in Cardiff Castle, I was concerned it was going to be a repeat of the lackluster event. However, I could not have been more wrong! This year the Castle has been given a festive make-over with most fantastical pop-up theatre, luminous decorations, and a plethora of stalls for everyone to enjoy.
This production marks the second show we have seen from the Castle’s Spiegeltent festival the first of which being Santa’s Wish where I talked about for me Christmas is all about the child-like wonder that floods over you as Santa bellows his iconic catchphrase. As we get older the magic of Christmas starts to fade away and we our perspectives begin to change. Sometimes Christmas is not about that warm fuzzy feeling in your belly, sometimes it is about purposefully finding your way onto Santa’s naughty list and being your own “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
This brand-new, mature cabaret event is unique in the fact that it was hosted mostly by different arrangements of three separate cast members. We were introduced to the fabulous Velma Celli (who is west-end star Ian Stroughair behind all the name-up) who is all of my cabaret dreams come to life on stage! I am absolutely in love with the sparkly outfit they wore at the beginning of the performances which acted as a disco ball by reflecting the stage lights beautifully. They also helped to drive the pace of the show with hilarious interactions with the audience (including stealing my sequin Santa hat and handing to the people next to me) and delivering exciting introductions for many of the acts. On top of all this Velma also performed an excellent rendition of the hit song “Let Me Entertain You” which introduced the host to the audience as the almost master of ceremonies. We are also introduced to ‘the Magician’ Alex Phelps who has somewhat of a storied history with the previous host. He also helps to introduce the final host and mystery guest of the evening Ana played by Vikki Bebb after randomly selecting her from the audience and hypnotising her to be the star of the show. I do think that the inclusion of selecting her from the audience was convoluted and was very clearly an intentional plant that took away from the rest of the very live and at times highly dangerous acts to follow. I have to admit that there was an underlying storyline to the show about the re-discovery of a mythical yet fictional Castell Annwn but I missed many of the plot points as these details were shared of overwhelming audience reactions.
The first act to officially grace the stage was the fire Fox Angie Sylvia who delivered a mesmerising burlesque/fire swallowing number which ended with her setting the remnants of her outfit of fire while still on her body! The sensuality of stripping combined with the danger of fire breathing made for a totally fascinating act that had me in the edge of my seat throughout! One of the acts that had the biggest reaction of the night was Brett Rosengreen who helped to showcase male burlesque which is something I have not seen a lot of before! It can only benefit the art form if more people are aware that burlesque is for anyone and so it was fantastic to see these performers a part of the line-up! If this performance by Brett is anything to go by then I cannot wait to see more male burlesque dancers in the very near future! His cowboy-infused number was so dramatic and sensual with just a splash of humour as he poured what appeared Jack Daniels over himself and the stage which just added to the sensuality of his number. The pairing of Yann LeBlanc and Sophie Northmore (under the duo of hand-to-hand) delivered an amazing, gravity-defying balancing act where the latter would contort and maintain the most insane positions as the former supported and functioned as the much need muscle. This performance was not only elegant and beautiful but also let the audience wondered how it was all possible which is the sign of an incredible circus act. I have to say that the silk routine by the flying man Joe Kelly was one of the best aerial routines I have ever seen! The way that Joe can rapidly wrap himself into the silks to twist, flip and dangle in the most precious positions was incredible to watch and also had me on the edge of my seat throughout. There were very few pauses between positions (which is usually a concern of mine during aerial numbers) which made the entire act extremely smooth and fluid for the audience.
Overall, Castellana is one of the sexiest shows this Christmas and (although we cannot make guarantees) may be the reason you end up on Santa’s naughty list this year! It is a wonderfully vibrant yet sensual show that is clearly intended for a more mature audience (due to the nudity and sexual references throughout) but this is absolutely a show to catch on your next girls/guy’s night as there is something for everyone! I would rate this production 4.5 stars out of 5!
Every single year, without fail, there comes a point in the year when people online begin to argue about whether it is too early or not to put up Christmas decorations. Some may say Christmas begins after Halloween, others after the first of December but I personally think Christmas should never stop! I have been jamming out to Christmas songs and proudly wearing my Christmas attire all year round purely because in my opinion, the festive period is the best time of the year so why shouldn’t we keep it all year round? A little-known fact about myself is that I used to be the Santa that would travel through the streets of Cardiff to bring a bit of Christmas magic to the hoards of children that would flock to the sleigh to tell me they should be on the good list this year. These adventures were often extremely arduous and tiring (even more so for the elves who would walk alongside the sleigh giving out candy canes) but it was all worth it seeing how the faces of the young children would light up when you waved at them or even hollered a “Ho, Ho, Ho” in their general direction! To me, Christmas is all about that childlike wonder that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling in your belly and so when it was announced there would be a new Christmas show heading to the iconic Cardiff castle I knew it was not to be missed!
Santa’s Wish currently showing at Cardiff Castle opened up with the most magical Santa (who knocks the fluffy socks off my portrayal of the role) played by Dyfrig Morris who delivered arguably one of the best musical portrayals of St Nick I have ever seen! The ability to maintain the over-the-top Jolly-ness is something I struggled with for the short period of time when flooded with kids on the sleigh but Dyfrig manages to keep up this persona throughout even though every single one of his movements are under constant surveillance by the audience! He has mastered the art of a playful yet booming voice that caught everyone’s attention whenever he spoke. One of the things I really enjoyed about this production is the fact that it is almost totally self-aware but acknowledges the crowd and explains how they ended up on the Castle grounds. After a routine flight Santa had given the reins of the sleigh to a trustworthy elf Crackers (played by the extremely entertaining Richie Gooding) only for Crackers to start showing off making them crash into a far-off land. The script mentions the fact that they are in the Castle grounds but don’t know how to get back as the reindeer have fled for safety!
Santa and Crackers are joined by the fresh-faced Snowflake (who has a rather unique backstory which we will explain later) played by Millie Davies who delivered quite possibly my favourite song throughout the entire show. Her rendition of “Teach me How to Fly” was wonderfully moving and showcased Millie’s incredible vocal abilities throughout. The beautifully sung sections of the song were broken up with the aforementioned Santa telling the story as to how Snowflake became an elf in his adorable yet magical voice! While Millie was pouring out her heart in this number Keely Edwards was showcasing her aerial abilities as she hung upside down directly above her fellow performer. This spectacle was not only a treat for the eyes but the vocals were a treat for the ears too! There is a much more emotionally powerful rendition towards the end of this production which really focused on how much of a talented singer Millie really is! The elves and Santa decide that in order to get the sleigh back to the North Pole they must create a new magical wish which means telling the story of how Snowflake managed to create her own wish many years ago!
One of the characters we meet throughout this story of Snowflake is Lilly (played by the amazing Naomi Katiyo) who is an extremely kind-hearted young girl who is very upset that there are people in her community who go without food. While she is only little, she is able to use her passion for cooking to make jars of jam and delivers them to those who need it most. The fact that the UK is currently facing a cost of living crisis with more people than even using food bank services, helps to bring the message of kindness from this play to the doorstep of every single person in the audience. We are all able to show some sort of kindness to those who are less fortunate than ourselves so promoting this message to a younger audience is vital, now more than ever! One of these jam jars makes it to the home of Freddie, Eddie (played by Richie and Keely respectively) and their father who are a family struggling to make ends meet during the run-up to Christmas. The much-needed jar of jam helps to feed the three people for the evening and then they finally decide to throw the empty jar away. At this point the incredible song all about small acts of kindness was sung which encourages everyone to think about each other which is especially important with everything going on right now! While the jar is waiting to be collected, however, a distressed and stray snowflake (who is one of our lead characters in disguise) floats into the jar while on her journey to make it to the North Pole. This wish of completing her journey combined with the kindness from Lily earlier in the story combine to give Snowflake the ability to fly where she heads straight to Santa’s to become a real elf! I do have to admit that the almost origin story of snowflake did overshadow the earlier story of Santa and his elves crash landing and the focus could have simply been on how the magic wish jar came to be rather than rediscovering the magic in order to use it to get back to the North Pole. The book-ending scenes with the stranded Christmas crew did seem also just tagged on the end with the center scenes where the story really began to gain momentum.
Overall, Santa’s Wish is a wonderfully festive Christmas musical that explores themes such as kindness and selflessness which are obviously very important. Seeing the faces of the young audience members being transfixed by the wonderful Santa or becoming overwhelmed with joy any time a performer would wave at them is fundamentally what Christmas is all about! I do have to say that I think the opening and closing scenes did seem to fall a little flat but the origin story of Snowflake is where this production really came to life. The castle itself has been wonderfully decorated with two ice skating experiences and so I would recommend young families (or Christmas-obsessed people like myself) to make a day of visiting the castle and making sure they catch a performance of this adorable show. I would rate this production 4 out of 5 stars!
You can find out more about the production and book tickets here
Elgan Rhys’ adaptation of Goldilocks at the Sherman Theatre is a magical production that offers a wonderful introduction to theatre for young children. The piece, directed by Nia Morris, is a modern re-telling of the classic fairy tale. Although audiences will recognise the names of the characters and references to porridge, chairs and beds – the story moves in a different direction.
Goldilocks, played by Elin Gruffydd, is a friendlier and more endearing version of the character that we are used to. She is an upstanding citizen of ‘Golden Town’ where her grandmother is the mayor. Goldilocks abides by the town’s endless list of rules, many of which are centred around an obsession with all things yellow, and she has achieved one of the highest accolades by growing the finest golden locks in town.
Things take a turn for the worst when Goldilocks discovers blue locks amongst her golden mane. Embarrassed and ashamed, she flees to the “periphery”, the outskirts of town where those that are different are banished and, according to legend, eaten by gruesome bears.
The fun, colourful bears that Goldilocks meets could not be different from what she was expecting – they even eat porridge with oat milk and sit on rainbow-coloured chairs! The bears challenge Goldilocks’ perceptions, helping her to embrace her new hair and teaching her to understand the importance of being herself. Inspired by this experience, she returns to Golden Town to champion the joy of being different.
The story has a strong, positive message that is told in a fun and engaging way, using catchy songs and puppetry to keep young audiences enthralled throughout. Actors Carrie Munn and Rhys Ap Trefor who each played multiple roles interacted beautifully with the audience; at one point some children edged so far forward into the performance space they were practically sat on their laps but they incorporated this into the action and were able to expertly coax them back into the seating area.
The show is performed in the Sherman’s Studio Theatre where audiences have the option of sitting on benches or on the floor on large pink mats. The space is very friendly and welcoming which helps to relieve any fears that parents might have about keeping children quiet and sitting still for a long stretch. There seems to be a general acceptance that the audience probably will make some noise, eat sweets and wriggle about a bit. That being said, the level of concentration and excellent behaviour in the room is a testament to the quality of the performance – the audience were totally enraptured.
With a 50-minute running time and no interval, this delightful reimagination of a well-known tale is the perfect festive treat for a young family. We had a really enjoyable afternoon and would certainly recommend this performance as a lovely outing for families with young children.
Elen Benfelen / Goldilocks is at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff until 31st December 2022.You can find out more and book tickets here
Grangetown, 1913. A young girl called Stevie (Lily Beau) is about to face another Christmas without her mother, a Suffragette who is spending Christmas Eve on the campaign for women’s rights. Much to her mother’s disapproval, Stevie’s uncles gift her with a book of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Yearning for a story of her own, Stevie finds herself transported in the weird and wacky Grimmdom and assembles a chorus of fairy tale characters on a quest for a happily ever after.
Written by Hannah McPake (who also plays Mother / the Snow Queen), and directed by Joe Murphy, Tales of the Brothers Grimm is proof positive that there’s no place like the Sherman at Christmastime. Their annual production has become as integral a part of the festive season as a mince pie, and their latest offering is a treat for all the senses.
McPake, most recently Peter Quince in the Sherman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, continues to prove herself as a real tour de force both onstage and behind the scenes. Her writing is as crisp as snow and sparkles almost as much as her Snow Queen costume does: when she crashes onstage dressed like Elizabeth I as styled by Vivienne Westwood (actually the wonderful Hayley Grindle), you know you’re about to see something iconic.
While riffing on some of the most beloved fairy tales in existence, the show also affectionately draws on The Wizard of Oz, with Stevie stranded in a strange and magical world and wanting to get home. Her actions in the Grimmdom end up disrupting the fairy tale trajectories of Cinderella (Katie-Elin Salt), Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams), and Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) – and so they journey through the forest to find the Brothers Grimm and put their stories back on track.
The production plays with archetypes and doubles, with much of the hugely talented cast playing multiple roles and instruments. Kyle Lima and James Ifan play both Stevie’s stern bookbinding Uncles and the Brothers Grimm, who make a grand entrance singing a Europop banger while dressed in sparkly lederhosen – and if that doesn’t make you want to see the show, I don’t know what will. Ifan also steals hearts as a soul-searching Prince Charming while Lima huffs, puffs and blows the house down as a bluesy Big Bad Wolf.
Lily Beau leads the adventure brilliantly while Keiron Self as the Narrator (in his seventh Sherman Christmas production) holds everything together with a dollop of charm and a huge dose of silliness – he and apprentice actor Michael Morgan also get to join in on the sparkly lederhosen front, with much aplomb. Elin-Salt, Williams and Workman first take to the stage as the Uncles’ automaton-esque Bavarian helpers, before returning in full Disney mode to great effect. Williams, a finalist on The Voice in 2019, lends real power to ‘Wide Awake’, one of a host of brilliant songs by McPake and Lucy Rivers (with musical direction by Barnaby Southgate). Meanwhile, Hayley Grindle’s set and costumes underscore the jagged magic of this topsy-turvy fairy tale world.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation: straw can be turned into gold, a pumpkin into a carriage, and a frog into a prince. But while ‘happily ever after’ bookends the stories it can also trap its characters: in gender roles, in unhappy relationships, in the illusion of closure. The Narrator yearns for a name, Stevie for purpose – even the Snow Queen longs to rewrite her story. The princesses might all call on Prince Charming to save them, but he is just as much a victim to the patriarchy as they are. Even the Brothers Grimm are trapped by fame and expectations.
In a beautifully subversive move, McPake – as both actor and scribe – encourages her characters and her audience to think beyond ‘The End’: to flout the rules, to rescue ourselves, and to write our own stories. Tales of the Brothers Grimm is a feat of pure Grimmagiantion, and it proves something even deeper: the Sherman isn’t just the place you go to see a show: it’s a place you go to feel like you belong.
Tales of the Brothers Grimm is playing at the Sherman Theatre through to 31st December. There are a number of accessible performances (captioned, relaxed, and BSL interpreted) through its run, and reduced ticket prices for children and under 25s. More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
Throughout the year the inclusive community focused Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, put on a variety of performances and free activities.
The outside and interior of the Sherman has been revamped in the last couple of years and is elegantly decorated, modern seating and lighting.
Most recently the Sherman Theatre have also reached out into the heart of the local Cardiff communities, bringing the arts to the people.
I went to one of the Tales and Tea sessions at the Beacon Centre in St Mellons, to see A Better Land, by Catherine Dyson. The intimacy and no frills props, added to the enjoyment. Having a chat with the actors afterwards was a great way to share feedback and discuss the storyline.
This week, we had a midweek family treat to see Tales of The Brothers Grimm at the Sherman Theatre.
It surpassed my expectations, and personally, it was one of the best shows that the Sherman have put on in the lead up to Christmas, over the past decade.
I was blown away by the performers talents. Each and every one of them, played their character so well. Whoever cast the positions, did an excellent job. Notice I said talents. That’s because they all had multiple roles weaved in, acting, singing and playing an instrument.
What is Tales of the Brothers Grimm about?
Tales of the Brothers Grimm written by Hannah McPake, reimagines the stories of well known fairy tale characters.
On a journey to find her own story, Stevie, comes across Cinderella, Sleeping beauty and Rapunzel. Disaster happens, the stories aren’t as they are suppose to be. Together with the narrator and Prince Charming they journey to find the Brothers Grimm, who they hope can fix it back to how it was, and even give Stevie her own part in her own story. They believe the big bad wolf and Snow Queen is set out to destroy it all. But with a twist!
The show was very well written and scripted, with humour and fun, and a sincere message.
I liked how they began the show by entering at different positions in the auditorium. I could see the range of emotions the story and songs brought to the audience, including my own children. The warm soft songs, some with sadness and some with positivity, my children clasped my hand and pulled in for a hug, and the upbeat songs with audience interaction making them laugh and clap.
My eldest son asked if there is a soundtrack to purchase as he enjoyed the music so much.
The programme was family orientated with colouring and puzzles for children.
The smoke effects added to the atmosphere, maybe a bit too much at times that you couldn’t see the characters on the stage.
There were a couple of songs I couldn’t hear the words in the song clearly. This is just me being super picky by the way!
Overall, an exceptional performance! A huge well done to the whole cast, backstage, production, ushers, the staff and volunteers that make the theatre come to life.
I highly recommend a visit to see this show, which is on now until it finishes at the end of December.
As far as I’m concerned, the festive season doesn’t begin until I’ve been to see Theatr Clwyd’s infamous rock ‘n’ roll pantomime. This year it just happened to be one of my favourites tales-the tale of Robin Hood. Although what would this story be without the heroine, Maid Marian? Or MariOn as we say in Wales!
Upon taking our seats we enter the forest. In front of us, giant trees with tall branches on which hang posters declaring ‘We love Robin Hood’. In the centre, what looks like a tangle of circular green branches, on which is hidden the name of our hero; the ‘o’ in Robin cleverly disguised as a target and arrow which light up. We’ve already been transported to where our story begins, in Flint-sh-sh-shire, as the Sheriff believes it’s pronounced, much to the frustration of his subject, Clod!
Once again, the cast enthrall us with their many talents; sword fighting one moment, next playing the drums for a big musical number, then singing a power ballad full pelt before completing a costume change and dashing to the top of the set to play keyboards without the audience even noticing the transition! Just incredible. And the reason, for me, that Theatr Clwyd’s panto is head and shoulders above the rest!
Let’s just hope that this remains the case once director, Tamara Harvey, leaves her post to take on the role of Co-Artistic Director of the RSC next year!
The action kicks off straight away and it’s not long before the water guns are out, and bubbles are filling the auditorium! As ever, the music choices throughout are unique and punchy. The cast always surprises with songs you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hear in a traditional pantomime. This year we have a Beastie Boys classic, Lizzo’s Good as Hell, and a rip-roaring rendition of what has become the Welsh football team’s unofficial anthem ‘Yma o Hyd’, although this may not feel quite as uplifting now that the team are out of the World Cup!
Phylip Harries’ Dame, Lady Myfanwy of Mold, is right on target (sorry!). His comic timing, interaction with the audience and chemistry with his fellow cast members, particularly the ever-amusing Daniel Lloyd who plays Little John, are all superb, and his transformation into Wonder Woman is something to behold! I’m convinced the creative team dare each other, every panto season, to push the boundaries with the lewd jokes! Always tastefully delivered and appropriate enough to bypass any little ones in the crowd, the adults amongst us were in for a treat! One particular line about a casserole almost made me blush!
As always with a Theatr Clwyd panto, the Welsh language is heard plentifully throughout the production with frequent mentions of local places from Flintshire to Rhyl, Mold to Wrexham as well as greetings from each character often delivered in both English and Welsh. It’s so refreshing to hear real Welsh accents, lots of local references as well as Welsh songs and music underpinning the whole piece.
Stand out moments this year include Celia Cruwys-Finnigan as Maid Marion. Celia is a little pocket- rocket and portrays Marion perfectly: shifting from an underrated, pretty Princess to an awe-inspiring female with attitude. And for such a petite person, she has a huge set of lungs! The costumes also provided plenty of ‘wow’ moments, none more so than King Gruff’s final, and only, costume, which, to the untrained eye, made it look as if his subject (aptly named Drakeford!) was carrying him on his shoulders! Brilliantly funny! Also watch out for the lip sync challenge, a scene in itself, and one which has children and adults alike in fits of laughter
However, the highlight for me, and others I’m sure, is Ben Locke as the Sheriff. Last year, Ben played Barry Island (the ‘Gaston’ character in Beauty and the Beast) and did such a fabulous job at being the villain that he was surely the obvious choice for the Sheriff. Ben seems to have a knack for playing a fantastically evil, handsome yet extremely camp baddie! Every line he delivers is flawless, his physicality is phenomenal and his comic timing perfect. Every facial expression is thought about and he’s clearly just having a wonderful time with this character!
Theatr Clwyd have done it again and brought to life classic tale in a very un-classic way! ‘Oh no, they haven’t!’ ‘Oh yes, they have!’
Theatr Clwyd, Mold November 30th, 2022-January 12th, 2023 Writer: Chris Patterson Director: Tamara Harvey Assistant Director: Juliette Manon Casting: Kay Magson CDG Set & Costume Designer: Adrian Gee Musical Director: Tayo Akinbode Choreographer: Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster Lighting Designer: Johanna Town Sound Designer: Matthew Williams Company Stage Manager: Cassey Driver
Cast includes Joe Butcher, Celia Cruwys-Finnigan, Connor Going, Caitlyn Lavagna, Lynwen Haf Roberts, Luke Thornton, Daniel Lloyd, Phylip Harries, Ben Locke, Alice McKenna, Chioma Uma Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes (inc. interval) Photo Credit: Kirsten McTernan
Hallelujah! Following three West End runs and a sold-out UK tour, the original Death Drop took the theatre world by storm by filling the stage with an all-star cast of drag queens and kings. It was easily the filthiest and funniest thing I’d ever seen – and the sequel promised to be even more anarchic, swapping out Dragatha Christie for Dragnus Dei. Produced by TuckShop and Trafalgar Theatre Productions, Death Drop: Back in the Habit centres on a gaggle of glamorous nuns who occupy the remote convent of St Babs. With a gamut of ghostly goings-on, and a potential serial killer slashaying their way through the sisterhood, the Vatican sends Father Alfie Romeo to sleuth out the truth – though he’s no Sis Marple.
Written by Rob Evans and directed once again by Jesse Jones, Back in the Habit is the newest entry in the self-proclaimed Death Drop Cinematic Universe (DDCU), created by Christopher D Clegg. The sequel is blessed with the presence of drag royalty, including two returning stars: RuPaul’s Drag Race US Superstar Willam (the only contestant to be disqualified!) as Sis Titis, and award-winning Drag King LoUis CYfer as Alfie Romeo. They’re joined by a holy trinity of Drag Race UK stars: River Medway as Sister Maria Julieandrews, Cheryl Hole as Sister Mary Berry, and Cardiff-based Victoria Scone (the first cis woman to compete in the franchise’s history) as Mother Superior. Blessed are they who pun in the name of the lord.
The cast are on top form and bring glamour, gags, and gravitas to a script that isn’t quite as tight as the costumes. There’s a lot of camp, comedic potential in Christianity – for further reference, see the Met Gala’s 2018 bash – and its ecclesiastical extravagance is suitably eviscerated here. In true Death Drop fashion, the jinks are high and the brow is low, with no innuendo left unturned. Despite throwing shade at the ‘cheap’ production values, Peter Mackintosh’s set and Rory Beaton’s lighting are extremely effective, especially in the scarier scenes (demonic possession, ghostly apparitions, and a ghoulishly good reprise of Flo and Joan’s ‘Oopsie Whoopsie’).
The characterisations are top-class – but I must make a confession: while the performers are truly doing the Lord’s work, the material they’re given is far from divine. Cheryl Hole’s Sister Mary Berry and Willam’s Sis Titis are brilliantly named and performed, but their comedic potential isn’t mined as much as it could be – Mary Berry isn’t even the resident chef! If we already have Sister Maria Julieandrews, why not have her be joined by other onscreen nuns: can you imagine Willam donning Deborah Kerr’s iconic white wimple from Black Narcissus while Cheryl Hole channels Debbie Reynolds’ guitar-strumming Singing Nun? In recent years we’ve even had Saint Maud, Warrior Nun, and The Conjuring movies – but there’s one obvious omission: to not have a queen take on the role of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Mary Clarence here is practically blasphemous, especially as its her film which lends this show its subtitle. Its second-to-none cast, though, is its saving grace.
While it might not be the answer to all your prayers, Death Drop: Back in the Habit is a Joyful, Joyfulslay ride that features a heavenly host of drag performers that put the ‘original’ in ‘original sin’. Can I get an Amen?
‘I told you I was ill’: this is the epitaph of one Terence ‘Spike’ Milligan, who holds the rare honour of being able to make people laugh long after shuffling off this mortal coil. Milligan was the man behind The Goons, a satirical radio show broadcast by the BBC between 1951 and 1960. As co-creator, chief writer and one third of the titular trio along with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, Milligan took postwar Britain by storm and influenced comedic greats from Monty Python to the Muppets. Premiering at the Watermill in January and now ending its successful UK tour at Cardiff’s New Theatre, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s SPIKE celebrates the man behind the madness.
Directed by Watermill AD Paul Hart, SPIKE takes place during the tumultuous making of The Goons, which was just as chaotic and surreal behind the mic as it was in front of it. This trio of working-class lads had a penchant for the surreal and direct line to your funny bone – but, as with anything creative, tempers flared and egos clashed. Robert Wilfort (aka Gavin and Stacey’s Jason – he of the infamous fishing trip) is nothing short of stupendous as Spike, no small feat when considering that the man was a one-off who was always ‘on’. Determined not to play him as a ‘Tears of a Clown’ caricature (for more, check out our interview with Robert here), Wilfort plays Spike as the beleaguered eccentric he was – a loyal friend, a frustrating colleague, and a loving if distant husband. Wilfort captures Spike’s soul in all its anarchic, defiant glory, and has the comic chops to make his iconic quips soar.
He’s supported by a rabble-rousing, gag-tastic cast who collectively had the audience in stitches. While this is Spike’s show through and through, Mischief Theatre alums Patrick Warner and Jeremy Lloyd as Peter Sellers and Wales’ own Harry Secombe, not to mention Ellie Morris as Spike’s first wife June, all have their time to shine. Warner and Lloyd are uncanny as their comic counterparts – and when they share the stage with Wilfort, they nail the Goons’ very particular magic: they’re just three (extra)ordinary people who enjoy making each other laugh. Robert Mountford does a brilliant job as both a haughty BBC Executive and as one third of a toffee-nosed trio of critics, along with James Mack and Margaret Cabourn-Smith (who also plays enthusiastic sound engineer Janet). It’s no surprise that cast and crew have been nominatedfor multiple Broadway World UK awards.
While the show focuses on a relatively narrow portion of Milligan’s life, it covers a lot of ground, from his service in the Royal Artillery during World War II to his struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder and the breakdown of his first marriage. Most vividly, it captures his infamous battles with the BBC: you see, the war never really left him, and neither did his rebellious attitude to authority. When he discovered that the Officer Class were to have command over him again, this time as the pen-pushing Heads of Department who nixed anything vaguely novel, Spike took up arms anew.
In the excellent post-show talk (of which the New should do more, if possible), co-writer Newman admitted that the play gave him and Hislop (The Wipers Times) the chance to ‘steal all of Spike’s best jokes’. While the play lacks something of a dramatic through-line, the love for Spike is in every second; there’s a reverence about his irreverence that makes it as moving as it is hilarious. Even Spike’s daughter, Jane Milligan, expressed how much she misses her dad’s ‘anarchy’, and his ability to hold power to account – remember that even the reigning monarch did not escape unscathed from Spike’s cutting wit.
While Peter Sellers went on to great success in movies like The Pink Panther and Dr Strangelove, and Secombe (iconic as Oliver!’s Mr Bumble) went into music, Milligan became a prolific memoirist (Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall), poet, and children’s author – but never reached their flashy heights. His influence, though, is immortal – and SPIKE is, in true Goonish fashion, an eccentric celebration of a man who, even after a lifetime of making the world laugh, was still gone too Goon.
SPIKE concludes its UK tour at the New Theatre Cardiff this week – make sure to catch it between 22 – 26 November before it’s Goon forever! More information on the show and how to book tickets here.
Last year, Company of Sirens and Sight Life Wales collaborated on an innovative installation piece called ‘With Eyes Closed’, in which people with sight loss shared stories from their lives. The theatrical space was transformed into a beach, and the performers would unearth a memento from the sand and from their past. Their second collaboration, ‘How My Light is Spent’, was postponed in August due to covid, and finally premiered this week with two highly in-demand performances at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. It takes inspiration from the sonnet of the same name by John Milton (author of ‘Paradise Lost’) who lost his own sight around the time of its publication.
The company’s phenomenal debut caught me completely off guard, and it meant that I walked into the ‘sequel’ with high expectations – and it exceeded every one. What the creative team has achieved here is nothing short of profound: a level of emotional authenticity and community that sets a new standard for what theatre can achieve.
Many of the performers from ‘With Eyes Closed’ return here, and it is a joy to see them grow to new heights both as individual storytellers and as a group – so, first and foremost, kudos to Roz Grimble, Sharon Hale, Emma Juliet Lawton, John Sanders, Lou Lockwood, and Jane McCann. Their reflections here centre on their experiences in lockdown, and of their relationship with their senses and with nature.
Each performer brings their own distinct light, letting their unique personalities and voices shine (they also do this literally: when each takes centre stage, they are illuminated by a different colour, having worked with lighting designer Dan Young to convey the unique shade of their story). Alastair Sill provides characterful audio description and acts as both guide and emcee, leading them to the stage and lending an attentive ear to their stories. In the forest setting, his performance takes on an otherworldly quality: a sweeter, gentler Puck watching the dreamers’ visions unfold.
The set, designed by Edwina Williams-Jones, is strewn with autumnal leaves and twigs that crackle underfoot, creating a tactile image of a forest out of time. Sion Berry’s multimedia films, Chris Durnall’s direction and Stacey Blythe’s music are, themselves, sources of light: they guide, encourage and illuminate the performers without turning the attention on themselves. The piece is cleverly bookended by Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ and Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ which resonate with the themes of the piece, and Blythe’s use of both accordion and harp interweave the merry with the melancholic (and there really aren’t enough accordion dance breaks in modern theatre!)
The piece is a rich, engrossing experience: stories of happiness and hardship alike are told with compassion and without compromise, and always with a light touch and a sense of humour. What the cast does here transcends ‘acting’: this is soul-deep communication, a placing of story in the palm of your hand. The sense of community, too, is moving. You see, the forest can liberate but it can also entrap: only by telling our story, and guiding each other through the darkness, can we be truly free.
The first play was themed around water – this one, earth. Perhaps in their third collaboration, Company of Sirens and Sight Life will take to the skies. In many ways, they already have.
‘How My Light is Spent’ performed at Chapter Arts Centre on 18 and 19 November 2022. Company of Sirens will restage ‘Stone the Crows’ in February 2023 (you can check out Get the Chance’s five-star review here) before premiering ‘Rhapsody’, a new play about pioneering Welsh writer Dorothy Edwards, at Chapter in May.
Get the Chance Community Critic Barbara Hughes-Moore speaks with Chris Durnall, Artistic Director of Company of Sirens, and director of the upcoming new play ‘Rhapsody‘ about the life of Dorothy Edwards, one of Wales’ greatest writers. While little-known nowadays, Edwards was a highly influential member of the Bloomsbury Set, a group of radical English writers which also boasted the likes of Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. The play is written by Gary Raymond and performed by actors Gwenllian Higginson and Gwydion Rhys, with music by Stacey Blythe (though not a traditional ‘score’ as such – more on that in a bit). ‘Rhapsody’ will premiere at Chapter Arts Centre in May 2023.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Hi Chris, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to tell the story of Dorothy Edwards.
Dorothy Edwards a writer who has clearly been repressed due to her gender, her Welshness, and her working-class roots. When she was part of the Bloomsbury Group, she was called the ‘Welsh Cinderella’. That wasn’t necessarily she reason she did what she did, but her creative life was different [because of] where she came from. I think she got swamped by the big personalities in the group like Virginia Woolf and David Garnett. So, it’s about bringing her life out and finding a way to tell that story that is contemporary, so that it’s not a piece of history. It happened in the 1920s and ’30s but its themes are relevant for now. For us, it’s about making it current and contemporary, otherwise it becomes a museum piece, and when theatre becomes that, then it loses relevance. There needs to be a reason to make it, and that reason has to be something that’s happening in the world today.
How have you ensured that the creative process retains that immediacy and relevance?
We wanted to begin with Dorothy’s suicide and work backwards. The short pieces seen [in the R&D in November] actually started with Dorothy in Bloomsbury, then it went to her introduction into London society, then we touch on her return to Cardiff and worked with [Ronald Harding, a married Welsh cellist]. Really, it’s working backwards: starting with her suicide and then trying to explain what happened to her. What were the factors that led to her being relatively unknown, and unhappy in her personal and creative life? We try to answer those questions. Her suicide note is very well-known [“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship and even love without gratitude and given nothing in return.”] After that, the rest of the play is exploring what that might have meant.
Does that mean you follow a strict structure – x has to happen at this point, y at the other – or do you keep it quite loose?
It’s very loose, and it shifts focus. The film ‘The Hours’ is quite a similar reference point because of that. We wanted to avoid was a straightforward linear storyline: we wanted to play around with time shifts and theatrical styles. So, first of all you have the sonata form: the three different strands of a sonata, based upon musical notation, [provides the structure for the play]. Then within each of the three acts, you have three very different styles of performance / musical instruments – within those you have three sections as well. So, the sonata form is kept throughout the three sections of the play.
That’s really important for us because she was so musical: her novel was called ‘Winter Sonata’, her short stories called ‘Rhapsody’, and they’re all based on musical form. How then do you capture that musicality within the production and within the text, and how do you make the music not something that is a soundtrack but is an integral part of the production itself?
That’s the creative challenge – and within that, there’s a third layer which might be quite controversial, where the actress steps out of the story. That happened once in the R&D, but I would like that to happen a lot, where the actress steps out and comments on their life, so as to make a connection between the actress, the character of Dorothy, and the part she’s playing. It’s interesting theatrically to do something like this; it might seem confusing at first, but I think in the context of shifting focus / timeframe, that it would work. The device takes it away from a linear narrative. It is about Dorothy Edwards, but it’s also about Gwen, and about the actress playing her: you have three women investing in this role – the catalyst is Dorothy but it’s also a catalyst for their experiences as well.
You mentioned ‘The Hours’ as a touchstone for you – when I was watching the R&D, it reminded me of ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’: where actors are playing actors playing characters, which shares the ‘triple layer’ device.
That’s a really interesting observation and something I hadn’t thought of! [Harold] Pinter did the screenplay for that, and I’d like this play to be a lot more fluid so that the three drift in and out constantly. In the first act particularly, Gwen and Dorothy shift all the time, as does the male character [played by Gwydion Rhys]. Once you’ve established a convention, the audience understands and goes with it. The risk you take when doing something different is that the audience might be a bit confused at first!
Do you think that choice brings out different things for the creatives and the audience?
I think we underestimate our audiences a lot of the time, and a lot of the work I see is rather ‘on the nose’. To me, that bypasses the whole point of theatre – which is about audience involvement, the audience thinking and making decisions for themselves based on what is presented to them. If you’re constantly given information without the opportunity to assimilate and interpret it, it’s easy to be entertained but it’s difficult to be moved by it because you haven’t invested enough of yourself in the performance. The audience wants to be part of the experience. For me, it’s about what’s underneath the words: the spaces, the gaps, the moments of reflection where the audience comes in and makes it their own.
Do you feel that theatre enables you to give the audience more of an active role in telling a story?
Definitely – I’ve done theatre all my life, and what I love about theatre is you can do anything with it, it’s so incredibly flexible. You can create anything onstage and the audience will go along with it: what works is when an audience suspends their disbelief. I think that’s true of all theatre, that the audience will invest in what you’re doing and will buy into it – we sometimes underestimate and spoon-feed audiences when they don’t want that. I go to the theatre wanting to be challenged.
Would the challenge in this production be the musical aspect, i.e. Stacey Blythe’s music, which isn’t just an emotional score but a character in its own right?
This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. In 2013, I worked with the Sherman Theatre on a production called ‘Matthew’s Passion’. I worked with an autistic actor and a musician, and I wanted the musician to follow the actor around so that everything they did was interpreted musically. It didn’t quite work in that instance and became more of a soundtrack. So, what I wanted was for Stacey to work with Gwenllian – her music is the soul of the actress, they’re in a rhythm together. Stacey has certain chords and codas in mind but is flexible enough to follow the actress and shift as needed, and vice versa – they work together in this beautiful dialogue. I find that fascinating. You’ve also got the script on top of that, and a rhythm to the script that is more evident in the monologues in the first and second act – but there’s a musicality to the script, the performance of the actress supporting the music, and those things come together in an interesting way.
There are a lot of trios going on here: the sonata, the actress, the rhythms.
That’s absolutely intentional. When you start something like this, I really believe that things happen independently of you making them happen. It’s sort of magic, theatre is: it’s based on ritual and performance, and that magic doesn’t go away, so things happen constantly if you allow them to, and if you don’t try to control them.
How do you manage to walk that line as a director, when you have to lead while also allowing for these magical ‘unexpected’ things to happen?
The first thing is, I don’t try to control the proceedings. Casting is very important, finding people who you can trust and support each other. Then I try to create an environment in the rehearsal room where people feel happy and free, where they have fun, and where they feel respected – for me, that’s the main job of the director, because once you’ve created that environment with very talented people, they’ll get on with it. The big problem, and I’ve made it in the past, is where you try to control something. Allow people to try things out, and if it’s not right it will become self-evident. A lot of the time I’m happy to admit when I don’t know what to do, or where to go, with a story – I don’t profess to know exactly what I’m doing. In fact, I very rarely look t the script once I’ve read it and talked about it. Staring at the script isn’t my job: I’m interested in what’s going on out there. The director’s job is to create an environment in which actors can be creative. If you do that, they’ll amaze you – but if you try to control it, you’re in trouble.
It’s evident in the work you’ve done, the creative freedom you give the actors.
In this country we have that tradition where we still think in terms of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan – don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but we have to move forward. Where’s the innovation otherwise? It’s fixed in time and set in aspect, which is okay if you want a bit of nostalgia. But what I try and do is make theatre when people go to the bar afterwards and say “What do you want to drink?”, but instead that they talk about the play.
What is it about Dorothy’s work that suits this looser, more collaborative way of creation?
I read her novel and her short stories, and I thought there’s something indefinable and great here a. Gary [Raymond] then did something for the Wales Art Review on Dorothy Edwards, I emailed him saying I’d read his work and was interested in what he’d said. He came to see ‘Stone the Crows’, and we got talking afterwards and exploring some of the ideas of musicality and character. There’s something special about her work and I don’t know what it is yet, but that it’s something to do with musicality, and about masculinity – all of her protagonists were men, which is extraordinarily unusual.
I wonder what the impetus for that: is it that great literature is often written by and about men, or was Dorothy making a subversive point by speaking through her male characters?
The form she chose to adopt (i.e., the country house novel) was quite old-fashioned, yet within that traditional structure is something really unusual that I think came from her background, who she was, her upbringing. Her father was a really important figure in her life in terms of her relationships and her political qualities: he was a firebrand Welsh radical that was part of the Labour movement. One of the things we wanted to explore here is the figure of the father: at the moment, it’s introduced in a recurring musical motif from the Chopin sonnet which we translated into Welsh. The father may not be in it, but his presence will be through this tune, and also in the male characters who do feature. If you look at her relationships with older men like David Garnett [a Svengali-type figure who introduced Dorothy to the Bloomsbury Set], there are qualities in them that they perhaps share with Dorothy’s father.
Maybe it was subconsciously a way of linking with people who were successful in the field, who had access to many opportunities she didn’t have growing up.
It was all controlled by Virginia Woolf and co., who were basically literary gods. But they were very exclusive, which might have been a shock to someone as idealistic as Dorothy. Expectations and reality are often very different. I can only relate it to my own experience: when I went to drama college, I expected everybody else there to be as passionate as I was about literature – I love those people, but I was really disappointed that they didn’t feel the same way about theatre as me. I can imagine Dorothy felt the same way about the quest for knowledge.
While Dorothy wasn’t a Welsh speaker herself, the character does speak Welsh in the play. How does Dorothy’s ‘Welshness’ factor into this production?
If you’re going to include the concept of Gwenllian playing ‘Gwen the actress’ playing Dorothy, and two of them are Welsh speakers, then you can’t ignore it – it’s part of who those people are. It was important for us to bring it into how we worked together on the play.
Is that important for this story specifically, or something that theatre in Wales can and does focus on – the layers of language and ‘the self’?
The Welsh language is an important part of who and what we are – and when you’re exploring national identity as we do here, you need to address it. What that does for us here is that it feeds the production, that bilingual element. I’ve been to quite a few Welsh language shows over the years – and while I don’t speak it myself, if it’s done well, then I can follow the narrative.
What about Gwydion’s role – he seems to play combinations of characters, like Dorothy’s fiancée, and David Garnett, and ‘himself’. It’s not called ‘Dorothy and David’ – while it’s Dorothy’s story, it’s interesting to see how his role feeds into hers
You have three strands to him too – he plays the cellist she had a relationship with in Cardiff, who wasn’t her intellectual equal; David Garnett; and the actor Gwydion as well. He also represents the men in her life including her father, but we haven’t at this stage yet explored Gwydion’s role fully within the piece the way we have Dorothy’s.
‘Rhapsody’ premieres in May next year. Has the R&D process in November crystallised certain things for you and the team, and can you see aspects changing already?
We’re getting there! We will have 3 weeks to rehearse and there will be space between the R&D and then, where we can explore what we haven’t thought of yet. When you go back to something you’ve done before, you’re faced with these moments that you missed – time gives you the space to assimilate what works and what doesn’t. I’m so keen to produce work. I just want to get stuff out there all the time. I often feel like I’m treading water sometimes, when all I want to do is make new things.
What are your plans for where ‘Rhapsody’ goes now, following the R&D?
What we like to do is to perform an extract as part of the Monumental Welsh Women week at the Wales Millennium Centre in March next year, because the event celebrates the lives of Welsh women that have been largely forgotten, then stage it at Chapter, and then look for other ways to perform extracts of it at festivals. I think you can take it to various places, tour it around Wales, Dublin Fringe, Edinburgh, maybe even Germany and the States.
What has surprised you the most, either about Dorothy’s story or the creative process?
The speed with which it developed over two weeks. We now have a script – the conversations I had with Gary and the performers created the script very quickly, and Gwenllian rose to the challenge so quickly. When you set a two-week development period, you expect to come out of it with a few scenes and themes – but as it was, we had the first draft of a script! The way the actors really entered into the whole piece, pleasantly surprised me. They just did it! The second act, which is basically a monologue, just poured out of them. My job is to allow that to happen, not to tell them what to do; to guide them so they do it themselves
What do you want people to take from it, and talk about at the bar?
I would like them to make connections with their own life; that’s the whole point – to see that what they’ve experienced on the stage e.g. I’ve been through that or thought that or felt like that. When you’ve done that, you’ve achieved a lot. I want them to take something of the play home with them. To me, that’s the nature of art: taking something and saying, I understand that. It’s like looking at a painting: even if you’ve never seen it before, there’s something of you in there that you recognise. Whenever I read a book or see a play, I visualise a place within my own life that I can place it in – it’s making a link between the general and the person, and it goes to your heart not your head. You can analyse things in your head, but when it really works is when it goes to your emotions.
Finding something that resonates on your frequency.
It’s indefinable – if you try to analyse it, it kills it. You don’t have to have a reason in art, sometimes there isn’t one: there’s an internal logic but it can’t be defined. You just have feel it.