Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Amazing Grace

Wales Theatre Company , Grand Theatre Swansea , April-01-05
This review first appeared in the Western Mail


It is, you'd think, hardly hit musical potential: a very brief moment in Welsh history when, for a few months, the country was obsessed by a charismatic ex-miner from Loughor who was to disappear into obscurity as rapidly as he shot to fame.

Add the names of Shan Cothi, Peter Karrie, Frank Vickery, Mal Pope, Michael Bogdanov, David Emanuel, Huw Edwards and Ed Thomas, however, and all you'd need would be Charlotte Church and the Welsh rugby team. Even if this Ed Thomas is the celebrated set designer (direct from Dr Who) rather than the playwright, it's a starry company.

But a popular musical about the 1904 Welsh Revival ?

The plot isn't much, to be sure, and it fizzles out noticeably once evangelist Evan Roberts loses his vision, but Bogdanov and the Wales Theatre Company may well have at last successfully produced the first Welsh stage musical.

It's an ambitious project, not least because it tries to avoid offending anyone too much - and if the performance I caught is anything to go by, the audience is just about the most variegated you can imagine – chapel coachloads from the valleys, curious holidaymakers, amateur historians, Eisteddfod audiences, theatregoers of all ages.

Was Roberts simply a naïve neurotic, a fraudster or the voice of God ? That depends on whether you are a believer anyway but Mal Pope's version has him at the very least sincere.

Indeed, Amazing Grace portrays him as a messianic saviour caught up with existing oppositions - the fire-and-brimstone preachers and the militant trade-unionists - whose ministry fails when he discovers sex and he is betrayed by a kiss and crucified by enemies. A familiar story.

I guess Godspell, Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar have already broken the taboo against making religious stories fun, but there are still a couple of numbers here that knock you back, and the orgasmic implications of religious ecstasy are exploited to the full.

Indeed, repressed erotic desire is part and parcel of the Evan Roberts story - the notorious tour in the company of four teenage girls is skated over here but the sexual appeal of this mesmeric young man created female screams and groans not entirely spiritual.

In some ways, the most honest opposition to the Revival came from the miners' union, whose leader Will Hay felt that the Hell of underground working was a more desperate issue than the Heaven-to-come of the bible-bashers, although here the obligatory respect shown here to the miners' struggle is not totally convincing, red-flag waving more of a choreographic device than a political statement.

So it's sex, drugs (if religion is the opium of the people) and rock'n'roll, a sure-fire formula. Acknowledge recent French musical-theatre successes, add a touch of Lionel Bart, the odd Welsh hymn and a host of other inspirations, and you have Amazing Grace. At present the first act still needs working on – the important first routine lacks zing and it takes a while to engage us fully – but the second half is a cracker, from the irreverent opening number to the gospel-style ending where the audience becomes the congregation.

It has not only ambition but confidence, this show. A huge cast – I counted around 30 on stage at times – is expertly directed by Bogdanov and the principals, like Bridgend’s own Peter Karrie, a towering figure in musical theatre, Shan Cothi, Wales’s leading singer-performer and Robert Barton, an experienced actor who takes the lead role with enthusiasm, are never allowed to overwhelm the rest of this very talented company. And how good to hear such singing, whether it is choral, showbiz-style or classically-trained voices.

Mal Pope’s lyrics can be naff at times and the show-stopper for Peter Karrie, You Never Threw a Party for Me, was such a late addition it isn’t even in the programme, the show abounds in clichés, but Bogdanov knows how to push the right buttons and there will, I suspect, be standing ovations every night.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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