Theatre in Wales

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Epic Spotlight on the Welsh-Italian Community

At National Theatre

National Youth Theatre of Wales- Cafe Cariad , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , September-01-07
At National Theatre by National Youth Theatre of Wales- Cafe Cariad No-one will ever accuse playwright-director Greg Cullen of lack of ambition. “Cafe Cariad ”, his final production after five years as Artistic Director of NYTW, tackles the under-known topic of the Valleys’ community of Italian cafe-owners. Opening in the nineteen-thirties it is a community bonded by culture and financial inter-dependence but divided by allegiance to or abomination of Mussolini’s preening regime back home. And, as the play’s central relationship between forced exile Giulio and cafe waitress Rhiannon explores, what is home anyhow?

The indiscriminate nature of the mass internment of enemy aliens has been seen elsewhere- “Welcome to the Paradise” and “Snow Falling on Cedars” were popular works about the dispossession of America’s West Coast Japanese. Here Churchill’s order (rendered in the script as “Lock ‘em all up” although the best-known book on the subject has the more colloquial “Collar the Lot!” as its title) makes a fine climax to Act One. Welsh- or Italian-born, refugee from Mussolini or Fascist supporter, family head or dependent, all adult males are rounded up and interned in the Isle of Man for onward deportation.

The key plot point in the second act is an exchange of prisoner identity and the subsequent torpedoing of the ship Arandora Star. Typically director Cullen does not opt for the sinking to be reported by a messenger, in classical drama style, but puts it right on stage. It is emblematic of the boldness throughout of the production.

Greg Cullen here is co-author with Tim Price, winner last year of a Royal Court award as one of the best fifty emerging writers in the UK. “Café Cariad” is epic in construction, swinging between scenes of light and promise in pre-war Dowlais and threat and menace in Fascist Italy.

How much is strictly sociologically true is moot. Italian-owned cafes were no doubt trashed by patriotic mobs. Whether feisty Valleys matriarchs went in for unabashed groin-kicking is less likely. Did church and chapel ministers leap on occasion at one another’s throats? But that is less important than the sheer theatrical zest of the ensemble scenes- a trip to the beach, an engagement party, a game of rugby.

If a cross-cultural romance is the play’s heart it is far from all sweetness. Cullen and Price’s second scene switches at speed to a funeral in Italy, darkly lit and dark in content. Iestyn Thomas displays a cool nastiness as the local fascist chief, and plays his later downfall with dignity. It is in these ensemble scenes, thirty-five actors swelling the stage, that the company strength is best displayed. In acting quality Mark Baker nudges ahead, if only by a whisker, and the best singing, again by a small margin, is that of Lowri Walton and Tomos Eames. Craig Barlow makes the most of a late crucial and comic part.
The best aspect of the script is that it is completely unpatronising to its young company. With fifty-one named characters and assorted Gestapo, radio announcers etc it would tax the best of companies.

There is an unbroken moral seriousness at its core- a brother and sister falteringly seek a place in a strange land while at home a brother is gradually lost to his mother. There are episodes of redemption- the most moving piece of music is a four-part, two male, two female, plea for forgiveness.

But the script is not above some humour about ice cream and coffee and the odd anachronism. “You must be absolutely knackered” is a Welsh greeting to a newly arrived immigrant “No, I am Giulio Bracco” he replies. There is also a running joke about a fowl gone missing; coincidentally the scriptwriters for “Hot Fuzz” used the same joke this year.

The fact that it exhilarates is due to the sheer scale and speed with which it operates. There is a gay sub-plot, or sur-plot, that seems almost too much but may well be in tune with the sexual free-for-all that is reported from World War Two social historians.

For a production that has to go touring Guto Humphries’ three-piece set is a model of economy, managing to suggest both interior walls and the Apennines. Unusually credits are given to three costume designers; the huge number look uniformly right, giving the Italians at times the look of August Sander’s classic photo portraits.

There are productions more chiselled than “Café Cariad” but there won’t be anything bigger or bolder on a Welsh stage this year. The opening night at Aberystwyth played to a packed, mainly young, house. It deserves the same this week in its venues North and South.

“Café Cariad” is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold 4th -5th September and Sherman Theatre, Cardiff 7th-8th September

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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