To see the Wales-based play Trouble in Butetown performed on a London stage was a tantalising experience. This was a rare example of accent and language reverberating around a place not situated within the confines of its nation. To hear Welsh being spoken miles from home in front of a multicultural audience where English was the common denominator was both a surprise and a delight. When coupled with the intimacy of the Donmar, where the audience are immersed right in the action, the familiar phrases, said without translation or explanation, made for an authentic performance that was unexpected but welcome.
The scenery and costume added well to the verisimilitude, transporting us all into the living room of an illegal boarding house in wartime Cardiff. Credit must also go to the dialect coaches who have worked wonders with a cast of mixed nationalities, Sarah Parish among them who, as the matriarch Gwyneth, delivers a voice of which those in the Valleys would be proud. She may be the star name in this production but the star performance goes to young Rosie Ekenna as Georgie. Making her debut on stage, her confident and agile performance belies her nine years of age. She produces a character that is full of attitude and vigour; tough as nails, and a quick wit which is keenly delivered. Her relationship with Samuel Adewunmi, who plays American GI Nate, wanted for the murder of a fellow soldier, is especially wonderful, the two bouncing off one another as equals in both their dialogue and action.
Rita Bernard-Shaw also shines as Connie, an aspiring singer, whose stirring renditions of jazz standards and blues numbers mark her as a real talent vocally. Meanwhile, Zephryn Taitte brings a much harder edge to Norman than Call the Midwife fans are used to seeing (he plays pastor Cyril Robinson in the long-running series). His presence on stage is always evident though never dominant; a character of compassion borne of struggle and hardship. His inclusion, alongside fellow immigrant worker Dullah (Zaqi Ismail), means that Trouble in Butetown portrays what the programme calls the “cosmopolitan community with seafarers from all around the world making Cardiff their home”. In doing so, it cannot help but include racial tensions which, though localised, speak to universal issues, giving voice not only to past generations but present struggles too. This is a story not only of Tiger Bay but contemporary Britain too.
There is a feeling at the end of the play that what has been witnessed is a celebration of diversity. It presents Wales’ capital city as a place of welcome and integration that belies the historical notion of a homogenously white population. It also presents the cultural importance not only of BAME identities but the native language of the nation, included here not as statement or stereotype but as real expression of lived experience both then and now. It challenges the notion, still prevalent in wider society, that Welsh is a ‘dead’ language. Trouble in Butetown plays a small part in taking it beyond the border, and in doing so, communicates cultural inclusion on several fronts.
Trouble in Butetown premiered at the Donmar Warehouse between 10th February & 25th March 2023.
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.
It could be that Dal y Mellt is S4C’s most ambitious drama to date. Episode one certainly promised much from a series that looks set to deliver. Adapted from the hit novel by Iwan ‘Iwcs’ Roberts, the narrative weaves mystery, comedy and crime seamlessly to create a world that is universally recognisable whilst being inherently Welsh.
The first thing to note is its scope. Dal y Mellt spreads across the country, taking in the busy streets of Cardiff and the beautiful vistas of Gwynedd in between visits to London Euston and Chester. Connections to Ireland via the Holyhead-Dublin ferry will come into play as the series progresses, making this a drama of ambitious scale. We are no longer confined to a narrative centred on small town Wales or even a singular region. Instead, Dal y Mellt combines the best of previous Welsh dramas to extend its reach to the whole of Wales and beyond. It does so not as a gimmick but in keeping with a kind of unspoken contemporary tradition of intimate character portrayals (Keeping Faith; Enid a Lucy), expansive landscape shots (Hinterland; Hidden), and a complex narrative web (Yr Amgueddfa; 35 Diwrnod). The cinematography, with its stylistic shots and trained lighting, ensures that it works by adding a touch of quality that underlines its movielike proportions.
Dubbed “a hoot of a heist”, there are already some familiar tropes that appear in episode one, including plans sprawled out on a table, secret meetings in an art gallery, and a car chase involving the police. What feels so fresh about this context however is that they’re given a Welsh spin. Gronw (Dyfan Roberts) holds down his drawings of a ship’s decks with a cup of tea and other items from his traditional farmhouse kitchen. The National Museum of Wales provides the backdrop to a conversation between wayward lad Carbo (Gwïon Morris Jones) and garage-owning gangster Mici Ffin (Mark Lewis Jones). Carbo drives through country lanes and takes a detour through some very muddy fields to get away from the cops. Each incident is tinged with humour which lightens the mood. The result is a series that is not gothic a la Peaky Blinders or violent like The Sopranos but nevertheless takes some of their ingredients and mixes it with a distinctly Welsh flavour. It means that the characters are all believable, reflective of their particular locations; and the story remains grounded even as the plot becomes more elaborate and outlandish.
The characters of Mici Ffin and Les are worth particular mention from this first episode, Mark Lewis Jones and Graham Land making for an instantly likeable double act whose straight faces only add to their comedic value. The fluffy seats and dice dangling from the rear-view mirror of their Capri conjure up a Del Boy and Rodney type partnership which also expresses a lovable incompetence reminiscent of Horace and Jasper. Their dealings with happy-go-lucky protagonist Carbo are a delight to witness, the cheekiness of his responses toward them making him an affable rogue. Morris Jones brings a dexterity of emotion to the role to create a character of both confidence and vulnerability. It is a combination that wins admiration from the viewing public, no more so than in the final scenes, as we witness his fear and ingenuity play out whilst dangling from a forklift tractor. It indicates to Mici the importance of this lad in the events to come, events which remain very much a mystery at the episode’s end.
The eclectic soundtrack, with its reggae-inspired beats and operatic moments, reflects an expansive taste across genre, location and emotion. It is a drama of dark and light; witty and gritty; familiar yet full of mystery. Dal y Mellt is not easy to categorise, combining as it does various elements, but it definitely looks set to entertain audiences with a narrative full of adventure and intrigue. If Y Golausaw it go off the boil, this looks to be a series that brings S4C’s dramatic output back to something that represents their best.
The first episode will be broadcast on Sunday 2nd October 2022 on S4C at 9pm. You can then watch the full series on BBC iPlayer or S4C Clic.
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In this latest interview, Get the Chance member Gareth Williams chats to actor and director Eleri B. Jones.
Eleri is a graduate of the University of Manchester and Drama Centre London. She is currently undertaking a traineeship with Theatr Clwyd as an Assistant Director.
Here, she talks to us about the traineeship; her involvement in Clwyd’s latest production, The Picture of Dorian Gray; a collaborative project with the North East Wales archives*; and representation and the arts in Wales.
To find out more about The Picture of Dorian Gray, including how to purchase tickets, click here.
*Below is one of four videos produced by Theatr Clwyd in collaboration with the North East Wales Archives as part of the project ‘Women Rediscovered…’. To watch them all, click here to access their YouTube channel.
Get the Chance supports volunteer critics like Gareth to access a world of cultural provision. We receive no ongoing, external funding. If you can support our work please donate here thanks.
Don’t get me wrong. The first two episodes of Normal Peoplewere beautifully-crafted, and I am looking forward to watching the rest of the series. From this initial glimpse, I can see why it has received such high praise from critics and viewers alike. Whilst this show has been taking all the plaudits however, another BBC3 commission has been quietly going about its business. In My Skin may not have been given a privileged primetime slot on BBC1, but I would argue that its voice has been no less powerful than that of its highly-acclaimed stablemate. The series has just come to an end, hanging on a somewhat explosive cliffhanger that suggests a second series is already confirmed. If so, it is hugely deserved.
In My Skin has been misunderstood in some quarters as being about popularity. I don’t believe that to be the case. In the main character of Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy), I found someone not wanting fame or even attention. In my eyes, she simply wants to be liked. As a result, she spins a web of lies surrounding her family in order to paint her life as an alternate reality wherein everything is “normal” and she is “ordinary”. She tells these lies to Poppy (Zadeiah Campbell-Davies), an archetypal Miss Popular, not because she desires to be with the in-crowd. It is not status that Bethan seeks but a relationship. She fancies Poppy. Part of this coming-of-age drama is the exploration of one’s sexuality. This is done with such gentle understatement as to capture a truth very rarely seen in fictional portrayals. The heterosexist narrative that presents same-sex attraction primarily (only) in terms of the closet is instead replaced here with a delicate acknowledgement of her sexual orientation. It is neither a problem nor a revelation; a source of pride nor of shame. It just is. And there is something quite beautiful and refreshing about that.
Some people may sigh at the thought of another teen-focused drama. Yet In My Skin places a spotlight on a corner of the world still underrepresented on television. Writer Kayleigh Llewelyn has talked about ‘wanting to recreate accurately the Wales we knew’. She has praised the likes of Ruth Jones (Gavin & Stacey, Stella) for capturing the ‘warm, broad characters’ of her homeland whilst taking this further, into the realm of traditional kitchen-sink drama, presenting ‘the grittier side’ found in the nation’s working-class communities. For all that I have delighted in the TV dramas emerging from Wales over the last decade, I must concede that most of these shows have been middle-class in nature. In My Skin takes us to the coalface, as it were; to life on a typical semi-urban street on a Welsh council estate. It doesn’t shy away from the challenges of Bethan’s home life, but it is also shot through with plenty of humour. Her dad (Rhodri Meilir) is an alcoholic; her mum (Jo Hartley) bipolar. In her Nan, played wonderfully by Di Botcher, Bethan finds a warm, witty and supportive companion. Hers is a world that is very rarely seen, yet represents for many an everyday reality. This is what the BBC, when it works, does best. We take it for granted at our peril.
The relationship between Bethan and her mum is the pivot on which the series rests. Hartley is astronomical in her representation of bipolar disorder, giving a performance of such magnitude as to believe she was the real deal. It shows in the accuracy and detail of her portrayal that she has taken on board everything that Llewelyn sought to put across of her own experience. For her part, Creevy presents an inner strength to Bethan that both masks an underlying fear and grows out of a persistent love for her mother. She reflects the vulnerability of her character at the same time as drawing out a steely determination within her. In their relationship, we see the pain, joy, frustration, anger, humour, and love that bind them. It is harrowing, heart-rending, and inspiring. It is what makes the series tick. But like many of its fellow comic-noirs (Fleabag chief among them), its supporting cast are so well-rounded as to add pungency to the show’s centripetal force.
In My Skin is a complete and utter triumph. It deserves major plaudits too.
Where to start with Six? Is it a musical, is it a concert or is it a degree in Tudor History?
It’s all the above and some more. If like me you didn’t do very well on your History GCSE, but have since seen Horrible Histories, the story of Henry 8th’s six wives should be known to you in some way.
Divorced, beheaded, and now live, Six The Musical’s success of the last few years has been extraordinary. From humble beginnings at the Edinburgh Fringe, back to the West End, UK tours and being performed around the world. It’s quite a feat for something that on paper doesn’t sound that brilliant, but when you see it, you get proven very wrong.
Performed as a concert, Six is the 6 wives of Henry 8th telling their individual story through the means of song. The twist is that each queen is based on a 21st century female pop icon. Be that Adele (Jane Seymour), Lily Allen (Anne Boleyn), and Beyonce (Catherine of Aragon). What this brings is a modern contemporize twist to history from hundreds of years ago, but in realizing that, there’s an underlying cause that brings it to the present with the likes of #MeToo.
The production, the sound and the overall feel is something that hasn’t really been done before. Maybe this will see more musical theatre being created this way. It was nice to see a spread of ages attending too. People going for different reasons, maybe history students, young teenage girls, or wanting to witness something quite special and different from a normal musical.
Performance wise it would be unfair to pick one individual since that’s what the whole remit was supposed to be. Individually, the Six women sing amazingly, as a group is where their power truly lies. If there’s going to be a new girlband, maybe they’ll come from the one of the Six’s line ups? All I do know is that it was an amazing afternoon spent at Wales Millennium Centre, witnessing something quite unique – plus it meant I went home and watched documentaries on Youtube about the 6 wives.
Don’t worry about losing your head – it’s worth it.
Focus Wales in one of the nation’s premier music showcase festivals. Held in Wrexham, it brings together some of the best people in the music industry for three days of talks, meetings, and, of course, musical sets. The best of both emerging and more established talent from Wales and beyond featured on various stages around the town centre. Headliners on Friday night, 9Bach were excellent, as per usual. But apart from these giants of the Welsh folk scene, who else stood out? Here are my personal ‘ones to watch’ from this year’s festival:
Hailing from Snowdonia and currently studying in Leeds,
Hannah Willwood and her band created the most incredible sound during their
set. Blending jazz, folk and indie, her music is at once familiar yet fresh and
unique. With resonances of an earlier era, it is a sound that intrigues,
mesmerises, and captivates. This girl is going places.
If I had to pick a winner for Best Performance at this
year’s festival, I would award it to Katie Mac. The singer-songwriter from
Huyton played an absolute blinder from start to finish. She delivered such an
enthralling set that I became completely absorbed in the experience. Here was a
prime example of quality songwriting overlaid with some incredibly accomplished
He proved popular with the Old Bar No.7 crowd. And it wasn’t
just his interaction with the audience that made this performer standout. Take
a listen to Albert Jones and you will find a vocal that is incredibly soulful and
wonderfully versatile. Comparisons with James Morrison are inevitable. But to
try and pin down his sound is much more difficult. Whether blues, country, folk
or pop, it seems that Jones can turn his hand to anything. A really engaging
What a stonker of a set from The Dunwells. Full of energy, enthusiasm and real excitement, every
song seemed to be a crowd-pleasing anthem. They not only succeeded in winning
over a raucous, increasingly drink-fuelled crowd. They managed to encourage
some well-judged audience participation that only added to the feel-good
factor, rounding off the festival (for me at least) in style.
If God Were a Woman / Beta Test
The inaugural Focus Wales Short Film Festival had an excellent shortlist of eight films. All independent, all made to a high standard, my personal front-runners were If God Were a Woman and Beta Test. The former is a provocative and thought-provoking spoken word from Evrah Rose, made all the more so by the choice of director Joe Edwards to film in a derelict Church. The latter is an American production that is very much in the mould of Black Mirror. It sees Eric Holt enter into a simulated world to relive some of his favourite memories. But then a glitch in the programme leaves him facing much darker stuff.
Review: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour® Dreamcoat – Wales Millennium Centre 14 May 2019
You’ll surely know the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour® Dreamcoat. If not…. where’ve you been? It’s a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, his eleven brothers and the coat of many colours.
From its origins in the late 60s to its revival in 1991 with Jason Donovan (then Phillip Schofield), this new touring production of Joseph certainly stands the test of time. It’s been one of my favourite musicals and that was only through listening to the 1991 cast recording, over and over. So, that aside. How does this fair?
Jaymi Hensley as Joseph is certainly a little powerhouse of a vocalist which belies his pop background of XFactor and Union J.
Trina Hill as the Narrator guides the audience through with a voice of great stature for someone so diminutive, and Andrew Geater as Elvis, err, Pharaoh manages to steal the second act.
Special mention though to the other cast/ensemble as I can’t remember the previous tour in 2016 being so rounded like this, as for the children – on stage throughout both acts, just brilliant! There’s more to what you may know of Joseph and it’s certainly worth a few hours of your time seeing it on this current tour. A perfect entry into the world of musical theatre for anyone of ages 8 – 98
I think you should not “Close every door” and just “Go go go” see Joseph!
Artist’s Festival (YAF) is a week-long, annual event run by The Other Room,
Cardiff’s only pub theatre. For the festival, the theatre invites between 35-50
participants from Wales’ emerging creative scene into their doors to gain
invaluable experience working with their peers.
initiative is open to actors, writers, directors and stage managers and aims to
provide an opportunity to explore their chosen discipline, encourage
collaboration and artistic risk-taking. The participants are shown the value of
hard work with an intense, but rewarding, week. They’re given the opportunity
to work with new, contemporary work. But the ultimate aim is for participants
to gain confidence, grow and keep creating beyond YAF.
starts with various workshops and talks from The Other Room’s staff and
industry professionals from a broad range of backgrounds. These workshops
include casting, starting and maintaining a company, arts council applications,
marketing, community theatre as well as sessions for skill-sharing and
networking. They also have specific workshops within their respective
disciplines with industry professionals.
The participants are then introduced to their companies, comprised of a group of actors, one director and one writer, and start working towards their end-of-week goals. Actors and directors present a performance of a given commissioned script and a dramatic rehearsed reading of their writer’s script. Writers write that ten-minute play whilst stage managers make it all happen.
The actors workshop this year was with Keiron Self and had a
specific focus on how an actor interprets text. The actors from YAF tell me
this was vital for the short rehearsal period they had. You don’t have long to
get to know your character, and it’s especially important in shorter pieces
where characters rely more on performance for characterisation.
Once the actors are in the
rehearsal room they have a couple of days to get off book before their first
performance. Something some saw as a somewhat daunting task, having never done
it in such a short space of time before. However, they realise it’s perfectly
possible and that the experience is vital for them moving forward. Especially
when preparing for auditions or working in the fringe environment where time to
learn lines is limited.
The performances at the end of the week come and go, but it’s
really about the experience of the week, of putting yourself out there and on
stage that seems to last beyond the week for the actors.
The directors had a workshop with Simon Harris, who focused
on doing text work before rehearsals and working with new writing. The
directors tell me this was great experience going in. Often their teaching has
focused on working in the room and once again, the workshop complimented the
direction process for the week.
The directors also have a production meeting with stage
managers where they set out their vision and discuss the possibilities. This is
something few of the directors had done before and again, it’s something that
really helps with their personal growth.
Directors also expressed the experience of being able to work
with a writer and have them in the room. Directing for rehearsed reading is something
that kept coming up also. Directing with a specific focus on displaying the
writing, which is different from directing the commissioned piece. Directing
both during the week is a valuable experience to take away.
The trust and support given to directors to control not one,
but two pieces of theatre, be placed in a room full of actors and deliver their
own vision is something the directors also spoke highly of. The support from
The Other Room’s artistic director Dan Jones and YAF producer Claire Bottomly was
a big part of the director’s experience.
As previously mentioned, the directors and stage managers
have a production meeting near the start of the week. For the stage managers
this is something none of them had done in this way before and is extremely
helpful moving into YAF.
The stage managers are very hands-on during the week. With the
support of a professional stage manager, in 2019 being Kristian Rhodes, they
effectively make the shows happen. Bringing the director’s visions to life by
sorting set, sourcing props and arranging lighting and sound. They’re present
in some of the rehearsal process and get to tech a run of the final
Overall, the experience is positive for the stage managers.
They’re constantly busy and feel like they’re just on the job. But, crucially,
have that support from a senior stage manager and The Other Room staff.
The writers start their week in a writing workshop with a
professional playwright. This year, and the year I did it in 2017, it was with
Matthew Bulgo. Bulgo is an excellent playwright and I can say from experience, very
good at leading a workshop. He focuses this one on structure and writing for
short-form, which is key for the week moving forward. All writers expressed how
helpful this was on many levels.
Bulgo also returns to offer feedback, which is also offered
by The Other Room’s staff throughout the week.
The writers spend the first half of the festival writing a
ten-minute play. Something that sounds quite scary at first, but from watching
the scripts performed at the end, easily possible to a good standard.
Writers then go into the rehearsal room on the Friday and Saturday
to see their scripts rehearsed. This is a new experience for some, as is what
happens in the afternoon on the Saturday when their scripts are performed in a
dramatic rehearsed reading.
The writers seem to be the most stressed during the week, but as a result the most relieved and happiest at the end when they see their work. It’s an intense but rewarding week and in some cases the writers take their scripts and develop them further.
Speaking to participants from all disciplines, it’s clear
they’re there for similar reasons. To make connections and friends, learn,
explore, grow, reignite a passion, re-motivate, progress ideas, bounce off
others, practice professionalism and a collaborative process in a supportive
By the end it’s clear the week has been valuable, often in
more ways than they realise. It gives participants a sense of pride if they
need it or helps to ground them if they’re more critical. To realise that not
everything has to be a masterpiece, and anything produced within a week won’t
be perfect. But that it can be done. It shows them that this can be done and
all it takes is a bit of hard work and the knowledge, which YAF provides, to do
When I did the Young Artists Festival in 2017, it didn’t seem
much different. The main difference is it seems more focused on creating an
environment of collaboration. Not that it wasn’t there in 2017. It’s hard to
really progress YAF every year, because it’s always been a really great week
for anyone involved. They’ve always been aware that people are different and
always tried to cater to everyone, making young artists feel comfortable in an
environment that, for many, is fairly alien – the world of professional theatre
Just a Few Words explores the psychological and emotional impact of having a stutter. How that affects your everyday life and indeed, your love life. We follow our protagonist (Nye Russell-Thompson) as he struggles to tell the woman he loves how he feels.
I’d heard a lot about
this piece and my main worry going in was that the writing would be structured poorly.
This isn’t a worry that need be had. The writing from Russell-Thompson is
brilliantly structured as we follow the protagonist’s journey through his mind,
preparing what to say.
Just a Few Words is
frustrating at times as a slow-moving piece of theatre, deliberately so. This
allows the audience to imagine, if not feel, the frustration that can be felt with
a stammer. Not to pity but understand. You never feel sorry for the character
which is a real strength of the piece. He feels like someone going through
something which is presented as normal and relatable.
A one-man-show created
and performed by Russell-Thompson, you can’t help but notice how this is more
real to Nye than it would be to another actor. Even without the knowledge of
who he is. This is a credit to his abilities as an actor, but also serves as a
note to organisations who don’t hire disabled actors to play the roles their
The debate about
stammering being a disability will continue, a debate I’m not qualified to
comment on and one this production doesn’t claim to solve. But what this play does
present clearly is that Just a Few Words is
stronger because of Nye’s personal performance. And it is the character’s
emotive story that is the main strength of Just
a Few Words.
The music and sound utilised in the production are excellent. From stuttering on an Otis Redding love song played on a record player in the beginning, to a grainy, static from said record player that runs for the entirety of the play. The sound is simple but adds a huge amount to the ambiance.
The minimalist set is great too. A record player in one corner, a table in another and the use of pre-written cards which act as subtitles for our protagonist’s thoughts that scatter around the stage complete the show and makes it everything fringe theatre should be.
Just a Few Words is an excellent and relatable portrayal of life with a stammer, blending a beautifully minimalist approach with powerful writing.
Just a Few Words is part of The Other Room’s
‘Spring Fringe’ curated spring season. One of eight shows coming to Cardiff’s
only pub theatre over eight weeks. Tickets can be found for the
upcoming Spring Fringe shows HERE, with an ever-growing discount for the more shows you book.
JUST A FEW WORDS performed at The Other Room 13th February – 16th February 2019 Presented by StammerMouth Created and Performed by Nye Russell-Thompson Stage Manager: Megan Randall
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