Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A tale of love, loss, hope, despair, joy and sorrow

At NYTW

National Youth Theatre of Wales- Cariad , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , September 1, 2007
At NYTW by National Youth Theatre of Wales- Cariad NB: Another, slightly different version of this review was posted online on September 1st.

The National Youth Theatre of Wales, under outgoing Artistic Director Greg Cullen, returned to Aberystwyth last night to give us a tale of love, loss, hope, despair, joy and sorrow in the form of ‘Café Cariad’ – a new musical by Tim Price, Cullen and Jak Poore.

The show tells the story of the fate of the Italian people in Wales during the Second World War from the perspective of Rhiannon Morgan, a young woman who works in the eponymous Café, run by émigré Giuseppe in Dowlais. Forsaking marriage for a life of independence, this life is turned upside-down by the arrival of Giuseppe’s niece and nephew, Giulio and Simonetta Bracco, and further so by the outbreak of the war and the internment of many men of Italian extraction.

The action is played out in an environment conceived and overseen by principal designer Ruth Hall and her assistants Guto Humphries (Set), John Bishop (Lighting), James Evans (Sound), Anna Stone, Claire Tucker and Joanna Nicholl (Costume). The set was impressive and multi-functional. Hulking great structures with windows, doors and platforms that seem hewn out of rock are moved gracefully around the stage to present many different milieus in many different locations, while judicious flying of some items of scenery adds suitable cosmetic touches. This is very well complemented by the lighting design and sound. I did fear stereotyping with costume design, but my fears were allayed very quickly, and the costumes added some much needed delineation and demarcation of characters in certain sequences where a large crowd of performers could easily become an indecipherable blur.

Jak Poore, who has created a very interesting score for the show, commanded an excellent band of young musicians who guided us musically through the complexities of what was a very dense show.

Movement sequences, under the choreography of Phil Williams, were conceived and produced with Williams’s usual flair, and were highly interesting and engaging to watch.

Performances from the very sizeable cast were energetic and heartfelt, and a few should be singled out. Elin Philips navigated her way through Rhiannon’s labyrinthine journey with a good deal of poise, even if at moments her emotions seemed to lurch to extremes of delivery, particularly in the latter section of the show. Tomos Eames, as her on-off love interest, Giulio, played his part with great panache, his powerful singing voice beautifully complementing the complexities of his character’s story, while Lowri Walton, as Giulio’s sister Simonetta, created a fiery, feisty role for herself which maintained an engaging nature through the better part of the show. Iestyn Thomas expertly rode the wave from power to impotence (in terms of character) as Fascist Party official Melandroni, while the local vicar and pastor were highly entertainingly played by Chris Cookson and Tom Sansbury. Special mention should be made of Carwyn James’s contribution as Philip Morgan. Though not in every scene, his presence was always top-quality, his delivery fantastic and his comic timing flawless.

For all these positives, however, I did not thoroughly enjoy the show.

The play felt distinctly over-stuffed. A huge amount of material was crammed into a show that does not have an overly-long run-time. Obviously, it is important to maximise your opportunities in order to cater for a large number of performers, but whereas last year’s NYTW show, ‘An Informer’s Duty’, did that in an engaging, plot-driving manner, ‘Café Cariad’ felt as though it lurched from plot device to plot device, scene to scene, location to location with alarming ferocity and speed, however easy it was made by the multi-purpose set. The stories told were good stories, but I didn’t feel that I needed to hear all of them. I was also deeply confused about the necessity for a crisis of sexual orientation storyline. Though I can see how it could add to the story, its execution failed to hit the mark for me in terms of a necessary thread to the tale.

Comic devices were generally good, but certain themes, such as a running gag involving a cockerel, were overdone and palled by the end. I did, however, find a brief moment involving two Irish people deeply offensive. I can, at a pinch, forgive poor accents, and I could recognise that the actors were working hard, but the direction of this scene evoked the worst excesses of stage Mickery, and presented us with Oirishness with a capital O. As a colleague remarked afterwards – the English, the Welsh, the Italians weren’t caricatured, so why pick on the Irish? I sincerely hope that this was the result of first-night nerves getting the better of two actors unfamiliar with the accent and therefore temporarily compromising the integrity and necessity of their roles. If this is the case, knowing Cullen’s own Irish background, I am sure this will be expeditiously rectified.

Music was enjoyable and interesting (particularly the fiendishly catchy title number) and was carried by good choral singing (some solos could stand to be tightened up a little) but, again, the songs felt slightly tired and overdone by the end.

I did not thoroughly enjoy the show, but I did not hate it either. Above all else, I found it frustrating, because I could see a great show within it. Sadly, I did not see that show fully emerge. However, I must admit that it is a gargantuan effort to mount a new work in a matter of a couple of short weeks on such a vast scale, without previews, so perhaps my expectations were just a little too high, or perhaps I have just been out of the world of acting and directing just long enough to forget the massive effort being undertaken by these young performers and staff, with no idea of how they will be received.

For all my eeyorish musings, though, I wholeheartedly recognise and commend the hard work and dedication of all those involved, who have striven with every fibre of their being to put together a stageworthy show. Particular congratulations to Greg Cullen, who fights for NYTW’s rights year on year and for whom, I sincerely hope, ‘Café Cariad’ is a fitting swansong as he takes his leave as Artistic Director.

The run continues next week to Mold and thence to Cardiff. Check local and national listings.

Reviewed by: Paddy Cooper

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