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.
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.
Creating opportunities for a diverse range of people to experience and respond to sport, arts, culture and live events. / Lleisiau amrywiol o Gymru yn ymateb i'r celfyddydau a digwyddiadau byw