Take Agatha Christie, Opera and a whole heap of comedy, slapstick and ridiculous antics and what do you have? A wild night on the Express G&S.
With minimal and moveable staging that sets us up on an entire train from cabins, to the lunch cart and so on, we undertake a short story that introduces characters, develops a plot and comes to conclusion, in quick and concise succession, something that Christie’s mysteries take so long to do. The scenes are able to change, giving one stage the ability to become all parts of a moving vehicle. And these are not just normal staging and set changes, but they are enhanced by the performers to create comedy and to ignore any pause that may come from such changes.
With a cast of 4, we are introduced to our “Poirot” and our accompanying pianist, but leaving the other two to chop and change between the “murder suspects”. With the slight change and addition of costuming, changes in persona and physicality, both performers are able to change effectively, creating more and more hammed up characters which make us laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Then we come to the Opera – almost like an operatic Disney movie, there is little space for spoken text but instead this is continuously sung. There is no underestimating the talent of these performers, with such extraordinary voices. However, I think it was unfortunate for them that the acoustics of the stage were not in their favour, sometimes dulling their sound or drowning them below the piano. This is of no fault of the cast or the venue, however looking at their tour, something like an outdoor venue which they are booked to perform at may help elevate the sounds.
One of the best parts of this production is its references to well known Operatic and Musical songs, ones that even if you are not familiar with either genre, you may have heard along the way, and their ability to change this to fit the play. The narratives are changed into hilarious, parody version, so while you’re tapping your toes, you are also splitting your sides not only at the lyrics but how effortlessly they have changed well known songs.
Express G&S is for all ages and a great deal of fun – enjoying it myself, I felt that for sure this would have been something my parents would have enjoyed, as murder mystery fans and its subtle mickey taking of Poirot.
A hybrid, yes – but with an all-star cast. With a live performance staged at the Oxford Playhouse by the Original Theatre Company in association with Perfectly Normal Productions and screened for one night only, A Cold Supper Behind Harrods, written originally as a radio play and broadcast as such by BBC Radio 4 back in September 2012, is now being streamed with the original cast and available on line for a modest fee.
Dubious as one’s early approach to virtual theatre might have been, the value of such screenings is now a given, and deservedly so. And this one is top of the class. Despite the starry cast, amazingly so when you learn that they are performing a live reading from the script after just one quick run-through beforehand.
The result –iconic! Admittedly, all three of the main protagonists are names you will recognise, and are theatrical veterans who have been around a long time. To whit – Stephanie Cole (ladies first), David Jason and Anton Lesser, all highly skilled thespians. Nevertheless, as is admitted in the Q and A afterwards, for all of them something completely new.
Not surprisingly, all of them rose to the challenge admirably, despite being faced with David Morley’s complex storyline, centred around the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. Three SOE agents meet up again fifty years after the war, the purpose being to be interviewed for a television documentary investigating the murder by the Gestapo of their late female and much-loved colleague.
Initial pleasantries between the three-give way to more disturbing issues as a web of lies and deceptions emerges, leading at last to the real truth. Inspired by real life characters and events, it makes for gripping entertainment, made even better by an outstanding cast and Adrian Linford’s deceptively simple set.
David Jason, stage veteran of such iconic television series as the unforgettable Only Foolsand Horses, as agent John Harrison proves once again that age is no barrier when it comes to sheer brilliance. As Harrison crumbles beneath the weight of knowledge revealed, Jason is utterly believable.
As the female agent Vera, Stephanie Cole is at her best playing irascible females and she doesn’t disappoint, with that roguish smile shining through at odd moments, while Anton Lesser projects a cool calm that later erupts into menace.
Adhering to Morley’s original script, which was inspired by the playwright’s meeting with two WWII veterans, the story is fictional, with love, revenge and feelings of guilt at its core.
Don’t miss it. This is a play that will pull you in from the start to the finish.
The title of this play, in itself should give you an inclining to its concept and writing. Blunt, dark, surely to take you by the lapels and shake you.
The Death of a Black Man, written by Alfred Fagon in the 70’s is a raw and laid bare story about black culture in the UK and the development of generations from the Windrush movement and London itself. There is no beating around the bush with this play and it takes a lot to sit and watch with its darkness seeping in slowly.
The Death of a Black Man tells the story of Shackie, his career development as a wheeler dealer in London, his battle with his own heritage and how far he will go to make it as a black man in a still very difficult and competitive society with race. Soon, his equally minded best friend comes along, selling his ideas and the two concoct ideas of exploitation of the white man, to make money but also to support black power. Starkly contrasted, Shackie’s older ex girlfriend appears, a black woman but from a middle class background, lacking an interest in her heritage and support of the movement. It is soon evident that these two will stop at nothing to make it in this world, even if it means betraying those in their own community.
Fagon limits nothing in this play. The language is of its time, with words and phrases perhaps not said today, making it shocking and at times awkward – but as this play grows darker and darker, this feeling is clever and well executed and only adds to the tension and the final crescendo. What is brilliant is there is nothing held back about Caribbean and London Black community culture, highlighting the development of these 2nd Windrush generations with their joint use of London and Caribbean phrasing and accents as they intertwine. As someone from neither community, this takes a little time to feel yourself in the swing of the writing and how it is produced but feeling the energy of those in the audience from these communities, it feels as if it is on point and reflective of those communities. It also gives a great insight into the culture of the time and how those communities were feeling, contrasting views between Shackie, who is happy to just create a career and utilise his heritage to get there; Stumpy who is a developing activist for Black Power with a underlying hatred for white people and the country he is in and Jackie, whose middle class background has washed away any interest in her heritage but who is as dark and cynical as the other two about life.
With only three performers, it felt as if we had cut away into this living room and was easily watching a normal conversation. Their acting was effortless and easy, with the added 70’s aesthetic making this feel like a piece of history. It felt very reflective of what you usually see at The Royal Court which is always very well done – something simple and naturalistic, with elements of theatricality bursting through. In this case, the conversation acts out naturally and a change of scene brings in the contrasting theatricality with music, lighting; the stage and scene changes before our eyes as the characters almost fasten up time, moving props and staging which would have happened naturally throughout several hours as they drink champagne into the night. The final part felt particularly theatrical, with naturalism taken away and symbolism and theatricality added to enhance the darkness of the writing.
My only critique is that it felt as if these natural, spoken scenes took too long and didn’t add or emphasise much by doing so. Fagon, sadly, writes about Shackie’s fathers death which unfortunately mirrored the writers own, little did he know. And while a brilliantly written play, it felt as if much of this production was trying to keep to its legacy, with a fear of maybe changing too much, cutting too much out or bringing it to the modern stage. Perhaps the fear of changing it and therefore it no longer being a homage to Fagon held it back in what it could have become. Points and elements, which as previously said were very much of the time, felt a little like it went over my head but I can definitely appreciate that this may be because I wasn’t alive in the 70’s to understand the references or culture, as well as the Carribbean/London Black Community not being my community. I would be really interested to hear from a reviewer of this community to know how reflective this really is and how it relates to the modern community.
The Death of a Black Man is interesting, it is dark, it is cleverly executed but something felt lacking and as if it really held back what is really possible with this production.
In our industry, there is often questions, perhaps never elaborated on fully when it comes to what actors go through. This is even more troublesome and often taboo when it comes to young performers.
Look Who’s All Grown Up by Abigail Chandler lays the taboo and secrets bare, without letting you ignore or look away. A coming out story of sorts, we meet two young performers who have reached the point of changing in their personal lives from children to adults but also in their performance careers. Highlighting issues with puberty in both the personal and professional but also what this means for their development in both areas and how quickly things can change.
We see three viewpoints – from a male, from a female and from an LGBTQA+ person. All similar yet staggeringly different, the three character’s stories are compared and contrasted, in experience, in opportunities and also in the unspoken – the Me Too movement and its application to child stars of any gender, but what this also means when you yourself transition from being the child to the adult in awkward situations.
Look Who’s All Grown up is carefully constructed to ease you into this headspace, and so when things become heated or awkward, you feel it in your gut, yet cannot look away. The character of Felix particularly lays everything bare, with a sense of humour and it isn’t until later that you can really understand the trauma it has caused. You fall in love with him yourself, not only with Chandler’s writing but Daniel Bravo’s effortless acting, adding a level of whether this is okay in relation to the topic, seriously highlighting the issues between the transition of child actors to adult actors.
Caitlin, played by Kalifa Taylor also shows a very good contrasting character and her personal growth, from an anxious girl with mental health issues to someone confident, knowing her worth but perhaps escaping the stories we hear of sexual misconduct with women and young ones at that. It was refreshing to have a strong woman character, helping the male character when these stories are often over looked.
Look Who’s All Grown Up is quirky, it is humorous but also highlights important points that are rarely laid bare and hits you in the gut with these facts.
Who would have ever thought that Samuel Beckett and Madonna would ever be thrown together in a play?
No one, till now.
Godot is a Woman, by Silent Faces, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If, like me (and Silent Faces), you are a huge fan of Samuel Beckett, particularly his play “Waiting For Godot”, and a liberal feminist, then the title alone is enough to tickle your fancy.
I try not to read too much about a production or a company before I see a show. I like to be thrown in the deep end and figure it out for myself. No presumptions or expectations. And am I glad I did for this one.
We meet 3 performers who want to put on Waiting For Godot. They reflect the original play by waiting for the Beckett Foundation to answer their call for the rights. As time goes by, the 3 battle with the reasonings on why they would be refused, a lot stemming from past beliefs in society, and hugely and predominantly focused on gender politics.
There’s an element of people who have a love/hate relationship with someone. Beckett, while a brilliant writer, specified that Waiting For Godot could not be played by females or anyone other than male, to loosely include non-binary people; I say loosely as this was never specified, in the terms of “Only a male can play these roles” way. This is thrown out in the open and discussed through performance – and it makes you feel something not necessarily easy about your own love for the play and playwright but in a good way, because it is important to address.
Silent Faces evoke the pauses, the silence, the staccato word play of Beckett when working through these thoughts. They bring in hilarious and highly hammed up characters in a pretend court room to highlight different facts and fables from both sides of the argument which in itself highlights the ridiculous nature of even having to argue gender for a play about self discovery.
They bring in elements that bring the whole play into the 21st century – instead of waiting for a person, they wait by a telephone that has a recorded message while they wait alerting them to the website. They bring in almost Brechtian elements, surprising us with dancing and music, such as Madonna, that would never have been seen in the style of Beckett. They give us a brief history of feminism and gender equality through music, dance and summaries of important elements from selected years e.g. Harvey Weinstein and the Me Too movement, androgynous celebrities and so on. And most importantly, highlights are brought onto Non-Binary persons. A exploration of the Beckett foundation’s elimination of anyone not male playing these faithful parts, including those who do not identify as either male or female and whether this is a sign of the times or something more. Again, we are thrown into history, learning something new about gender politics and how non-binary has been in lots of different cultures for thousands of years and that changing in times is not an excuse.
Godot is a Woman is hilarious, insightful, polished, educational and a brilliant production. While you feel a little uneasy as a Beckett fan, the fact it makes you question society and whether his approach would have changed makes it all the more interesting, making you further question the world we are in and the arts sector.
There is a sadness and deep sense of injustice behind the humour and surrealism of For the Grace of You Go I. Due to begin just before the pandemic hit, Alan Harris’ play may be long overdue but its delay has proved timely. Beneath the strange veneer of a storyline in which a man puts out a hit on himself lies a sobering analysis of the inequalities that coronavirus has exposed in society over the past 18 months. It makes for a darkly comic play that is both hugely entertaining yet deeply unsettling.
Its colourful set, of luminescent pink, green and yellow walls, belies the broken and struggling lives of its characters. They do reflect the dreaminess of their existence though. Jim (Rhodri Meilir), employed to put pepperoni on pizza as part of a government scheme, imagines himself as Employee of the Month – complete with giant rosette and accomplished chef’s hat – in one of several cartoonish scenes projected onto the walls. In reality, he is a thorn in his line manager Irina’s side. Played by Remy Beasley, she is under constant pressure to meet targets, and Jim’s daydreaming does nothing to help matters. Though work gives him a sense of purpose, she is forced to let him go. His only solace is found in a monthly film club where he meets new guy Mark (Darren Jeffries), whose obsession with American action movies makes him the perfect partner in Jim’s movie-styled life. After watching the 1990 Finnish film I Hired a Contract Killer, Jim decides that he wants to take the place of its protagonist and asks Mark to do the honours in killing him. It may sound rather far-fetched but there is a serious underbelly to its hyperbole and other-worldliness.
Jeffries gives an assured performance as Mark, whose Mancunian swagger hides a far more vulnerable masculine existence. He is terrific opposite Rhodri Meilir, who brings a beautiful innocence to the troubled Jim, their exchanges pacy and lively throughout to give a slightly unnerving edge to the funny and ironic dialogue. Beasley is wonderfully on-edge as the hassled Irina, maintaining a brilliant balance between sanity and breakdown such that her character fizzes both in dialogue and action like a loosely-corked bottle of pop. The pressures on all three are palpable in their different ways; and they give rise to the much bigger issues at play. Harris comments on mental health, consumerism, capitalism and the political system without ever being preachy. He achieves this through the disabling use of humour and by intimately tying the issues to the narrative. As a result, they ooze naturally out to offer a searing indictment on the oppressive systems and privileged attitudes in existence within society, tempered frequently by the comic form.
I had expected to be overwhelmed as I walked through the doors of Theatr Clwyd for the first time in 18 months. But though it felt special to enter the building to a familiarly warm welcome, made more so by the beaming sun as it flooded in through the windows; to give a knowing smile to the recognisable pictures on the stairs up to the Emlyn Williams theatre; and to be greeted by the same ever-delightful staff who were courteous and helpful as I got into a bit of confusion over my ticket number, it was the reminder of the importance of theatre, as a medium that can speak truth to power, that really made its mark. That importance has not gone away over the course of the pandemic. If anything, it has grown stronger and become more vital than ever. But having become acutely aware of this once-unspoken assumption outside of the context of its physical space and place, For the Grace of You Go I was the first opportunity for what had become apparent through the screen to be embodied within the bricks and mortar to which theatre most truly belongs. As such, Alan Harris’ already-powerful message struck an even deeper chord than it might have in pre-Covid times. If it had something to say then, it most definitely needs to be heard now.
Hi Cory great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
I’m Cory, I’m 29 and I am a theatre designer. I was born in Wales and trained on the MA Design for Performance course at the RWCMD. I’m an avid houseplant collector, a lover of cats and a huge drinker of coffee!
What got you interested in the arts?
I was always really lucky, Mum had a huge interest in theatre and took me regularly to see shows of all different scales. I grew up listening the Les Miserables soundtrack and with both parents supporting me to go into it as a career.
I also had an incredible drama teacher who was my driving force. I can remember going to see the Shakespeare histories on cycle at the RSC on a trip and just being absolutely captivated about how the words literally came to life – I still believe Shakespeare should never be solely read. We created huge school shows on an assembly stage and a shoestring budget, with him spending all of his own hours building and scenery painting. His dedication to the arts and the creativity he showed me is absolutely the reason I do what I do today.
Oh absolutely! Analysing text is a huge part of what we do, although perhaps not quite to the level of degree an English student does. I think reading is generally a very important skill for being a designer – we get through a lot of scripts a year and the ability to absorb them easily and quickly is an advantage. However I do occasionally get a little too analytical and technical, which can hinder the creative process slightly. Being incredibly practical is part of the job, but teaching myself to get out of the “organised and analytic” brain and into the “free imagination” one was a huge learning curve.
The freelance sector has been hugely affected with the Covid-19 Pandemic and subsequent loss of work. How did this affect you and can you see things improving as the vaccine roll out continues?
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that everyone in the arts was hit massively – myself included. I lost about 6 jobs over night to a point where I just turned my phone off and shoved it in a drawer to protect myself from the onslaught of sad news. It only got harder when I realised myself, and many others like me, didn’t qualify for financial help regardless of being self-employed for years.
It’s been a very hard year, but I have managed to try and find some positives. I spent a few months improving some skills, making masks, meetings friends I had put off for years due to being too busy and generally just took more time for myself.
I would like to think the vaccine rollout will move things forward to a place where we can do things that resemble normal again, but it will take time. For many of us, adapting to social occasions again will take time, and it’s important we remember that not everyone is ready for the welcoming hug in a rehearsal space.
There has been a great deal of discussion on new ways of working within the cultural sector as things improve. What ways of working would you like to see established, particularly for freelancers?
I’d like to think the industry will come back stronger – and there are signs of it. For the first time in years we are seeing freelancers and artists being put at the forefront of buildings (which is long overdue – its how most of us ended up adrift and poor during the pandemic) with schemes like the WMC Creative Associates
New Diorama creating free rehearsals spaces and development for freelancers and hopefully this is just the beginning. I want to see more open hiring (for anyone who hasn’t, sign up to Open Hire…) so that we get out of the bubble of the same creatives in the same buildings all of the time. I want to see more diverse teams, where everyone is treated with respect and with value.
Selfishly, I want to see better designers’ rights. We are hugely underpaid, have very little in terms of opportunities unless you know people, and ultimately for parents it’s even harder – how do you do tech working hours if you want a family and are seen as the primary caregiver? This isn’t just about women. It’s a long overdue conversation, but we need more resident designer opportunities, more open job adverts and more flexibility for working parents everywhere.
If someone wanted to stay and train in Wales and then pursue a career in Theatre Design, what would you advise them to do?Is a career in Theatre Design possible?
Networking is pretty much everything at the moment – who you know is half of the job. It isn’t the way it should be, but it is. Make an effort to introduce yourself to people who work in theatre, know who is making the work you like and see it so that you can talk about it. Absolutely train, you can do it without formal training, but a formal training centre will give you the boost not the industry that is so helpful – the RWCMD exhibition was a great step-up for us all. Yes it is possible – I’m managing it, and I never thought I would be able to. It’s hard, I won’t lie but it is the best job in the world. I am my own boss, I control my deadlines, I meet the best people and I get to create things that inspire audiences and thats amazing! Yes, the hours are really hard and the pay sometimes is awful – especially when you’re starting out, but its still worth it, just be ready to work incredibly hard and fight for your place. There are so many things we need to change in the industry but we need people to help us change it.
Which theatre designers inspire your creative practice?
Colin Richmond, first and foremost. I think there’s something beautiful about everything he does – even his costume sketches are a work of art.
Secondly – Anna Fleischle for her arduous work on women in theatre and being very honest about her experiences. Her work is also incredible in a very different way. For anyone unfamiliar, check out Hangmen at The Royal Court.
I’ve also got a huge amount of respect for Grace Smart, a designer who writes frequently in The Stage telling of her opinions on the rights of designers, the state of the theatre world and really opening the book up on how everyday is a challenge and as wonderful as the job is, it can be a challenge and a joy at the same time.
Can you share your approach to the design process? What would your normal working day consist of?
A normal working day? I don’t know if it exists! I spend a lot of time reading texts, and researching through various source books I’ve gathered over the year. Sometimes a design concept appears suddenly out of somewhere you would never expect to find it.
A little further down the line an average day consists of model making, slaving over my desk with tiny furniture and endless coffee. Either that, or online shopping and charity shop trawling for costumes, or sketching them in all sorts of different styles. Its why I love the job so much – a normal day just isn’t a thing, every day brings its own different set of tasks and challenges!
Get the Chance works to support a diverse range of members of the public to access cultural provision. Are you aware of any barriers that creatives in Wales face? If you are, what might be done to remove these barriers?
The biggest barrier I found working in Wales was how hard it was to get employed. Theres a systemic failing in British Theatre that to be seen as successful you have to have made work in London – its the only reason I moved, and sadly the move proved my point. Wales (and other regional theatres) need to make hiring more accessible, allow people to apply for posts allowing a wider range of candidates – give priority to Welsh and Wales based artists. I would love to see theatres give a show a year to a graduate or someone who graduated in the last 18 months in Wales and give them a shot to prove they can work professionally out of drama school.
With the roll out of the Covid-19 vacancies, the arts sector is hopeful audiences will return to venues and theatres.If theatreswant to attract audiences what do you think they should do?
Ticket prices are a huge problem in terms of encouraging people in. It will be a hard few months in terms of audience confidence anyway, but a lot of people who normally go to the theatre will be significantly worse off than they were before. Opening previews with a Pay What You Can would be a great step to encourage people back, but I think we should also be open about what we are doing to make sure people are safe. Advertise the covid measures for cast, crew and audiences to encourage audience support. Audiences will return, live theatre is too unique of an experience to not be tempted!
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
I’d love to see the development of new musicals coming from the land of song! Wales is known for its arts and culture, our male voice choirs, our language. We should use these skills and become known as the producer of new musical work – the industry needs it desperately, as well as a producing house to put it in. After all, we have some great producing houses – lets sponsor growing new talents.
What excites you about the arts in Wales?
Dual-language. I think it’s incredible that works can be seen in two languages and how we blend those together to create something is really special. I’m not a Welsh speaker, but I think the pride we have in our nation and our sense of patriotism is something truly special and to be able to present that in our own language through art is a truly amazing thing that I would like to see more of!
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
I recently managed to see Cruise the Play here in London which was truly incredible. One man show, an hour and a half long, played by Jack Holden who also had various other roles in the production. He told the story of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s through the eyes of two men who were diagnosed but the ending truly hit me. In a brilliant moment of stepping out of the dramatised narrative Jack tells of how he feared turning 30 through a pandemic (as if I’m honest, so have I) and that after walking through Soho in the current times during a health crisis of a different kind, he realised that he was lucky to be turning 30, when so many don’t get that chance. It really put perspective on the last year and what so many have lost.
The beauty of The Merthyr Stigmatist lies in its contemporary gospel message. “Why shouldn’t God send a miracle to Merthyr Tydfil?” is the strapline. One would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer at this play’s ending. Writer Lisa Parry carries something into her production which feels like its been formed in the fire of direct experience. She uses Catholic theology and Jesus’ paradoxology to give it added form and meaning. It is a narrative which challenges the narrative – the narrative that seeks to define us; made by those in power which can silence us, if we let it; that Parry attempts to rewrite in this excellent two-woman show.
Bethan McLean makes an impressive professional debut as schoolgirl Carys, who claims to have the stigmata: Christ’s wounds from the cross. Challenging her at every turn is her science teacher, Sian, enigmatically played by Bethan Mary-James. The two riff off one another to great effect, Parry’s deft dialogue translating into a fascinating piece of ambiguous characterisation in their hands. The result is a one-hour piece which refuses to take sides. One is never entirely sure whether the fervent beliefs of Carys are a sign of mental ill health or the readily dismissive Sian is not masking some kind of deep trauma. What is clear is the passion that comes through in their exchange, as they wrestle with a sense of identity and purpose. Both McLean and Mary-James bring a bitter sense of the reality that their respective characters are facing. As a result, though the stigmata may present as a possible actual event in the narrative, its symbolic position at its centre is what’s most important here.
This is where The Merthyr Stigmatist really shows itself to be a story for our time. For it challenges the assumptions made by the establishment, told to us in our overriding cultural narrative, that in order to make something of ourselves we must leave our small, local, tight-knit communities behind; we must swap them for a university education in towns and cities where regeneration and chic, café-culture living represent a professionalism which indicates success; and if, for some reason, we don’t quite get on and have to return to our native home, we must become some kind of saviour to the next generation, repeating the same mantra to them, and thus becoming part of the false and disempowering system that does anything but allow young people like Carys to be proud of where they come from if only those in power would just stop and listen – really listen – to what they have to say*.
The Merthyr Stigmatist succeeds in deconstructing this established narrative, subverting the notion of salvific agency in the process. In the end, it is Carys who saves Sian, not the other way around. Yet neither is Carys left completely unchanged by her encounter with Sian. This is where I sense the theological dimension of Parry’s play coming to the fore, as the themes of interdependence (the power of community) and empowerment (self-confidence and self-belief) break through. The result is not only the championing of a repressed voice of the Valleys but also a tapping into an emerging zeitgeist with regards Welsh identity. In this way, Parry uses the local to also touch upon a national concern, namely how Wales sees itself, in the context of the UK and the world. It is a conversation already happening to which, I think, this play can certainly contribute. As such, those in power would do well to listen – really listen – to what it has to say. For it is speaking a truth that, sadly, remains unheard.
“Do I literally have to bleed in front of you to get you to listen?” This is the question that haunts Lisa Parry’s visceral new play. Co-produced by the Sherman Theatre and Theatre Uncut, The Merthyr Stigmatist is a lean, lacerating two-hander that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Carys (Bethan McLean, in her professional debut) who claims to have received the wounds of Christ. Meanwhile, her sceptical teacher, Siân (Bethan Mary-James), struggles to believe that the hand of divinity has alighted, of all places, on Merthyr Tydfil.
It’s hard to express just how incredible it is to have the Sherman Theatre back. They’ve kept the artistic flame burning through unprecedented circumstances, and their latest production is a blazing triumph of personal and epic proportions. Parry’s play nimbly traverses the rocky terrain of politics, culture, and faith, and director Emma Callander, marking the tenth anniversary of Theatre Uncut’s founding, brilliantly balances tension and emotional tautness as the play moves pacily through beat after enthralling beat.
McLean and Mary-James are not merely mirrors, personalities bleeding in between the cracks; they are each other’s prism. To bring more characters to the stage would have refracted the light these two blistering performers throw on each other. (Aptly, the patriarchal (God)head Mr Williams remains unseen and offstage). As the power dynamics shift they prowl around Elin Steele’s sinisterly symmetrical set, which variously evokes a classroom, a cage, and a confessional. Bordered by liminal space, and brought to pulsing life by Andy Pike’s vivifying lighting, the only signifiers of the outside world are the choruses of Carys’ disciples and a line of what looks like rocks, perhaps Welsh slate, lining the front of the stage. At first glance, it looked like kindling for a martyr’s pyre – but on further reflection, I detected littered scraps of the Valleys’ industrial past, and it called to mind the Welsh towns that were flooded to provide English regions with water: Tryweryn and Elan, Llanwyddyn and Claerwen. Each one an Atlantis. The ruins of these stolen cities can sometimes be seen on warm days.
Intergenerational Welsh trauma is a wound that runs deep in the show. The spectre of Aberfan is invoked more than once, and Carys chastises her teacher for leaving her hometown (and accent) behind for pastures new in Cardiff, which might as well be ‘a different world’. In comparison to the vibrant, distinct Valleys community ‘where we look after each other’, Cardiff is ‘somewhere that could be anywhere’, a metropolis in the mould of many before it. While potrayals of the Valleys have historically honed in on negative stereotypes, Parry’s play is a moving paean to Merthyr and its individuality, its beauty and its love, its humour and its character, and above all its sense of community.
Merthyr Tydfil, or ‘Tydfil the Martyr’, is named after the daughter of an ancient Welsh King, who was known for her compassion and healing skill. Her sister formed a religious community in what is now Aberfan – a vivid reminder that we are never far away from our saints. Tydfil did not run when Picts invaded her land: she knelt calmly and prayed. Parry’s play is very much in the spirit of its martyred namesake. You cannot heal a wound, or a town, by running from it. Ivan Illich described the stigmata as an ‘individual embodiment of… contemplated pain’, and Carys, like her peers and the generations to come, will have to bear the marks of damage wrought by their forebears. But, like the diamonds in Carys’ mock science exam, like the gems of the coalfields and of the pits, something special and beautiful can be formed under immense heat and pressure. You just have to know where to look.
Recorded live during the pandemic and available to stream online through to 12th June, The Merthyr Stigmatist is just under an hour of utterly transcendent theatre. It unflinchingly addresses mental health, rape culture, and self-harm, and makes space for women’s rage. The show itself is an open wound, presented to us, palms up, asking for supplication, or succour, or simply to be seen. Are the holes in Carys’ hands and feet the marks of divinity, or of delusion? That is a question for you to answer, but in doing so, you might risk missing the miracle entirely.
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I have only known and admired him in a professional context. Done.
In the fateful words of JTC, ‘everything online is weird and nebulous’, and the ‘South Wales-based performer + theatre maker-come-nonsensical ideasman’, Justin Teddy Cliffe, is no exception. Weird and nebulous figure large in his show, Welcome Back, livestreaming on YouTube, where his particular brand of weird and nebulous is well-worth watching.
In his 30-40 minute one-man show, Cliffe performs live at Le Pub in Newport (Gwent) to cardboard cut outs, while simultaneously reaching human audiences digitally in cyberspace. Nice juxtaposition.
Self-created, directed and performed, with dramaturgy by Jeremy Linnell, Cliffe shows up in his underwear on a circular stage the size of a lazy susan — enough space for one man and four cans of beer. I’m guessing the mini stage was a creative decision — it had to be tight enough to get an upstage shot of his arse and still get audience reaction.
Cliffe’s brand extends to a kind of civilised vulgarity, which, if you don’t typically dance to the vulgar beat, try it. Cliffe delivers vulgar on the off-beat — it’s charming, it’s gentle — but don’t be fooled, it’s still a roller coaster ride with heightened realism, giving us an up ’n over view of the human condition in all its pitiful frailty, perhaps a view from the ‘Pepsi Max aka The Big One’ he still dreams of, dreams crushed like his beer cans, crushed, to delineate scene changes. And if you do like to dance you won’t want to miss his beat box R&B number, Right on Time (Choreography, Kylie Ann Smith).
The extent to which Welcome Back is autobiographical isn’t clear. His only character isn’t named. I suggest he represents Everyman. He questions: ’How will we cope going back into the world after having been in survival mode for so long?’ The Universe answers, ‘Who knows, but before you start worrying about all that, why don’t you toast this strange time with a drink or four and dance like it’s the end of the world as we know it.’ And so he does, for all humans and cut-outs to see.
The show deals with mental health, survival modes, memories, self-preservation and accepting change through a contemporary kind of clowning, and backed up by the science of survival we see in a slideshow at the top of the show, designed to assure us when he goes off on one.
His dreams — abstract memories — form the backbone of the show; song, dance and mini-riffs — like the ‘If You Haven’t Done That’ tale about his wild swimming, kombucha drinking, culture growing neighbours — are crack fillers. Cliffe’s recollections are mutually painful — he hurts, we hurt; he confesses they are ‘not stories I really want to tell, so let’s get on with it,’ a way of bracing himself and suggesting we strap ourselves in, too. And he tackles some tough stuff — but he makes sure that there’s a soft landing, providing billows of laughter at his raucous characterisation and self-styled use of language.
Justin Teddy Cliffe’s kind of humour begs the world to be a kinder, more humorous place. He manages to deliver raw stories, giving us something to really chew on, and edgy messages, sharp edges you’ve got to be mindful of. The combination is a prescription for our well-being: all that chewing flexes and stretches the brain muscles; and those edges require a wholesome flexibility and navigation skills.