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A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death Chapter Arts Centre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

What does it mean for a writer to be great? Is it measured by the amount of work they produce, or its quality? The way they are perceived by others, or how they see themselves? Perhaps ‘greatness’ is just the lie of venerating a ‘chosen’ few; a lie which inch by inch lifts that glass ceiling ever higher.

One of the few pictures that survive of Dorothy Edwards

By these metrics, a voice as brilliant as that of Dorothy Edwards (1902-1934) is lost in the maelstrom of literary machismo. The black sheep of the Bloomsbury Set, she was raised by firebrand radicals in South Wales and yet somehow dislocated from her working-class roots (she attended Howell’s private school, if on a scholarship, and later studied Greek and Philosophy at Cardiff University). In the London scene of literary greats like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, she was the ‘Welsh Cinderella’, raised from the pits of the Valleys into dazzling notoriety in her own lifetime – but after her death, her books went out of print and her suicide note became her most cited work.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

It is this complicated legacy that Gary Raymond’s new play sensitively examines. Directed by Chris Durnall, ‘A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death’ starts at the end of Dorothy Edwards’ life and moves backwards through twin storylines: in the past, Dorothy (Angharad Matthews) is inducted into London’s writing elite by David Garnett (Jâms Thomas); in the present, actors Meg and Byron, also played by Matthews and Thomas, debate how best to bring her story to life.

Writer Gary Raymond (left) and director Chris Durnall (right)

The play’s title – taken from a line in Winter Sonata (1928), her only novel – is an apt description of the drama, which toys with musical and emotional tempos. Matthews and Thomas are captivating, playing a convivial game of cat and mouse in which you are never quite sure who is hunting who. Thomas is equal parts charming and chilling as the Svengali-esque Garnett, who always seems to place himself physically higher in the space than his ‘ingenue’. While he might have benefitted from the same costume flourishes given to Dorothy (e.g., adding braces and a waistcoat for extra texture), Thomas’ performance is nothing short of transformative.

Angharad Matthews and in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

Matthews is radiant as Dorothy, a flame who refused to dim her glow. There is a quiet defiance to her performance that embodies the stoic passion of Edwards’ heroines; women who were pushed to the margins in the interwar period. She was an outsider even among the bohemians of Bloomsbury, whom another famous Dorothy (in this case, Parker) said ‘lived in squares… and loved in triangles’. Dorothy’s affair with a married cellist, her engagement to her Philosophy Professor, working as live-in carer for Garnett’s son: all of these relationships blur boundaries; triangles on triangles, like the sonata form which underscores Dorothy’s work. Even the stage – a square room with its triangle of wooden decking – plays with geometric shapes. The fact that it is designed by Matthews means that we are watching two hidden architects at work.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

And she pulls the strings from the very start. The live score by the luminous Stacey Blythe manifests Dorothy’s melodious thought processes: but as Matthews descends the steps for the first time, she slams down on the keys. This is her story, after all – at some points, she strides out in front of the audience and stares us down, as if daring us to forget it. Raymond’s soulful script, and Matthews’ lyrical performance, convey Dorothy’s abiding love for words: their codes and cadences, the way that just 12 notes and 26 letters can capture all the beauty and chaos of the world.

Angharad Matthews in A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death. Image credit: Noel Dacey (@noeley2510)

Durnall’s direction is a live if invisible thing: kinetic and coy, like the current that pulls a river. David and Dorothy circle each other, dynamics shifting, power crystallising. The sense that she was always thinking, always writing, with pen in hand or not, is ever-present, especially in the vibrant second act. Writing is her pole star: while people flit in and out of her life, that love never leaves her. Company of Sirens have worked their magic once more, and never is this clearer than in the exquisite closing scene, in which Dorothy finds true synthesis with another Welsh wordsmith (Glyn Thomas, author of The Dragon Has Two Tongues). It is an effortless coda that leaves Dorothy at a moment of pure synthesis. It is a slip of linen on the breeze; a single sustained note, that carries on even when darkness falls.

A Beautiful Rhythm of Life and Death is produced by Company of Sirens in collaboration with Chapter and Arts Council Wales, and performs at Chapter through 3 June. There are BSL-interpreted and audio described performances, and one matinee: more information and how to book tickets here.

REVIEW How My Light is Spent, Chapter Arts Centre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

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.

Lou Lockwood in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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.

Jane McCann in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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.

John Sanders in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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.

Alastair Sill in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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!)

Stacey Blythe in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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.

Roz McGrimble and Alastair Still in ‘How My Light is Spent’

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.


 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Black grit, sunshine and avocados: what makes a ‘life in the valleys’ play? 

I am always slightly filled with dread and anxiety when I see any show which is based in the South Wales Valleys. Firstly there’s the debate about where the ‘valleys’ begins and where Cardiff ends. Cardiff dwellers seem to assume that ‘the valleys’ starts somewhere north of Llandaff, while also lumping in Bridgend and much of Swansea as well – well we all sound ‘Welshy’ don’t we?

My childhood friend is insistent to the point of violence that our home town (Tonyrefail, in case you’re interested) is categorically technically in ‘the valleys’ and absolutely and most definitely outside the perimeter of the ‘Rhondda’. This is important (ol’rite?!). What she has against the Rhondda I don’t know. You’d swear it had a negative reputation or something!

 The problem with ‘valleys plays’ 
Back to my earlier point about ‘valleys plays’, depending on the producers – the accents in some plays may range from broad Llanelli to Mid-Merthyr and back again.  You may get a mash up of Stella (Sky) meets Hi-De-Hi meets Frank Vickery. And well, how can I say this politely? Sometimes we sound a bit….thick. I know, I know…I might be projecting my own negative prejudices and assumptions here…it’s an issue for me and I’m getting help. But I’m really not sure whether the ‘simple’ depiction of some of the characters is meant to be a source of comedy or whether this appears to be an attempt to broadly tar us all with the same brush. There is a danger of lazy stereotyping which I’m hyper aware of. Unfortunately, this was my starting reference point even before going in to the play.
As you may have picked up I probably have a chip on my shoulder the size of a Christmas ham where all this is concerned.  It’s often not comfortable viewing for me. And I’m going to be frank, I found the first 10 minutes of ‘The Good Earth’ a hard watch as I tuned in to the story…the accents, the blocking and the furniture scraping across the stage.
Tidy little melodies 
Musically, the cast gelled wonderfully and I adored the additions of the Welsh hymns and lullabies interspersed with the scenes. The song ‘Mae gen i dipyn o dy bach dwt’ (Translated as ‘Tidy little house’) was a perfect song for the backdrop of the play, which appears to be based on a real story.  Villagers in a mountainside village are threatened with being moved from the community they love and have lived in for generations. We see a family and their extended friends and family battling the local authority (and each other) as they fight it out.
We’re introduced to all the people ‘all living in a big long street’ – all ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’…one by one.  It all sounds very lovely and cosy. I cringe at the mention of seeing sheep from a window. (Really? Most kids don’t see a single bloody sheep til they visit Folly Farm when they’re 10!). But bit by bit, the innocence and sweetness of little Jackie (played by Gwenllian Higginson) wins me over and helps me lower my defenses.
Vol-au-vont observations… 
There are some really crisp references and superb lines which echo and crystalise life growing up in the valleys (for me anyway). Ever been ‘bastard cold’ or ‘bastard tamping’? Mam Dina describes her situation as ‘Bastard hard’…and of course you always know Mam’s gonna blow when there is a ‘bastard’ before the next word! You will of course be familiar with vol-au-vonts, which has been standard fayre in the valleys since the seventies and remains so to this day. In fact people go to funerals mostly to eat vol-au-vonts at the wake. True story.
I adored the little scene where Dina puts on a spread and is cross-examining poor Gwen with her preparation technique. There’s an uncomfortable pause as Gwen described putting ‘a touch of black pepper’ on the vol-au-vont as a finish. ‘A bit much that is, Gwen’ came the response.  I had the same type of experience when I tried to buy an Avocado in Porth a few months back – the cashier in Morrisons looked at me with pity and distrust as I described how I was going to make Guacamole with it.
There’s an interesting scene with James (played by Mike Humphries) as he gives an impassioned speech to the local authority representatives… People here don’t want jobs given to them that don’t benefit the community, how can they be grateful for poor housing, they need help and there are no public services and the community is crumbing. It’s an all too familiar story and one for which there are few solutions, particularly where the South Wales valleys are concerned.  I’m always interested to see attempts to re-write this story, this bleak fate of ours. And I want to hear from the dissenting voices too. Why was it that Gwen wanted to leave the village? For me, there is no romance for me in always sticking with the old – but maybe I’m missing the point.  I choose to look to the sky in the valleys, not focusing at the bleak bits and obsess on the tragedy of the past all of the time.  This is what I’d like to see more of in Welsh theatre. We are more than our past – and this doesn’t mean we are being discourteous or lacking in respect for those who toiled and bore the brunt of an unfair system.
What about the avocado-buying types? 
Ultimately, I’m wondering when there have ever been jobs that haven’t exploited the working man, whether coal mining, factories or McDonalds Drive-Thru’s. A whole generation is now in the position of being ‘the working poor’ or possibly part of a family that have never worked. Our communities are not as they were. We’re moving on…slowly. We’re even buying avocados now! But seriously…this play contrasts wildly with what many of us find in our own streets – there are no Mams scrubbing the steps anymore, we don’t know our neighbours names and it’s not the thought of leaving that frightens us, it’s staying in one place forever.The opening song in the play sings about the grimness and the blackness from Merthyr to Blaenau to Rhondda. That sets the scene really. Try finding the sunshine when you’re battling with these assumptions (maybe that’s why my school friend gets so tetchy about NOT being from the Rhondda). She now lives in Chippenham, so I doubt people look at her funny when she buys avocados.

This wasn’t the most uplifting of plays, but it throws up a million questions that will keep you pondering long after you’ve seen it – do our roots really matter, do they define who we are, is a house just a house…and do you like ‘fruit compost’ with your cheesecake? (Possibly one of the best lines of the night!).

Duration: approx 1hr 20min, no interval 

Director: Rachael Boulton
Musical Direction: Max Mackintosh
Co-produced with Motherlode and RCT Theatres, in association with Chapter, Wales Millennium Centre and Blackwood Miners Institute, supported by Arts Council of Wales.

Review, Love and Money, Waking Exploits, Chelsey Gillard.

Love and Money

Waking Exploits
At Chapter Arts Centre
11th April 2013

Almost hidden in the corner a small fish tank filled with its very own barcode striped set mirrored the stage. As the small goldfish swam aimlessly around it was impossible not to draw comparison between this small creature and the characters that are all trapped by their own compulsions, passions or self-imposed restrictions.

 Just like the goldfish David (Will Thorp) seems lost in his own world. As he communicates awkwardly via email with his new French lover he slowly reveals his wife’s tragic death and the role he played in it. Saddled by £70,000 of debt and an overwhelming shopping addiction his young bride, Jess, saw no other way out – neither did he.

Although Love and Money is a very wordy play, mostly consisting of monologues and dialogues, there was never a lull in the tension. Spiralling backwards in time Jess’s parents (played by the perfectly cast Rebecca Harries and Keiron Self ) share their horror at the huge monuments being built on the grave next to their daughter’s. Their love for their child is obvious but they can’t help but ask “why didn’t we help her?”  Finally settling on the answer “She’ll never learn if we always bail her out.”

 Occasionally dipping into surrealism the play asked a lot from the actors, especially Joanna Simpkins and Gareth Milton who both skilfully navigated a number of different roles. In a darkly comic nightclub scene sleazy ‘agent’ Duncan and seemingly naive office worker Debbie reveal the truth about the depths that people will stoop to in order to make quick cash.
 The stand out performance – in a show full to the brim with talent – came when Jess (Sara Lloyd-Gregory) entered and talked about her obsession with aliens, eventually revealing the paralysis she experienced when trying to decide between two different sets of forks. For her the compulsion to fill her life with material things seems to fill a void – but who or what this void was created by is only hinted at and each spectator is left to make up their own mind. Jess’s scenes in particular were complimented by Declan Randall’s multimedia design that gave the production a completeness and immersive quality.
In this close look at our society’s obsession with money and material goods there were no easy answers. In what could be a jumpy and hard to follow play Ryan Romain’s direction pulled all the viewpoints into a cohesive whole that was both interrogative and heartfelt.

Like the goldfish the play doesn’t really go anywhere due to the big shock of the narrative happening at the very beginning. Yet the energetic and completely engrossed cast carried the performance on waves of dark humour and heartbreaking honesty.
 Don’t miss out on this challenging and inventive production.
Tour dates and more info: www.wakingexploits.co.uk