Theatre in Wales

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Watch out – because the Chartists are coming!

Rape of the Fair Country

Aberystwyth Arts Centre Community Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , September 27, 2007
Rape of the Fair Country by Aberystwyth Arts Centre Community Theatre Almost a year ago, I wrote of Richard Cheshire’s production of Manon Eames’s adaptation of Cordell’s ‘Rape of the Fair Country’ one of my gushiest ever reviews, though not without good reason. That review may still be read on this site. This week, it returns, with a slightly different cast, a new home, but the same spirit, and marches forth into Aberystwyth Arts Centre from September 24th-26th.

Rehousing the show from the semi-round in Aberystwyth University’s drama department into the standard proscenium-arch stage of Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s Theatr y Werin could have ruined the intimacy and strength of the connection between the audience and the characters. So, too, could the change in cast, with a number of community members coming in to take on roles previously taken by students in a final year degree show. Similarly, I did wonder as I entered the auditorium whether those students who returned would be lacklustre now that time had passed and the pressure of gaining good marks for the work would have eased. My cynicism proved unfounded, however.

Adapting the original steel-balcony set for the stage geography of a prosc-arch, the construction team, under new AAC Technical Manager Nick Bache sympathetically created an onstage environment suited to the lives of those characters portrayed without sacrificing Trudi Molloy’s original design rationale. Likewise, Charlie Carter’s original soundscape and Tom Reilly’s lighting design complemented proceedings extremely well, while costume was, as ever, similarly fitting throughout.

The changes in cast have proved interesting, particularly the replacement by Ioan Guile of Alan Mehdizadeh as the firebrand preacher Tomos Traherne. Guile struck me immediately as being a tad too fey for the lines he was delivering, however, this concern passed comparatively swiftly and, by the end of the play, he was a powerful lynchpin – his final speech proving overwhelmingly, but necessarily, moving and forceful, while his performance in the opening section of the play, particularly when leading the church outing to Newport, showed a beautifully nuanced capacity for high humour. Mehdizadeh did return for this revival, however, as Big Rhys Jenkins – a role which he made his own with great ease, a quality replicated by David Kendell, taking on the role of Rhys’s son Moesen.

Rachel Crane, stepping into the role of Mam Mortymer for the first time, acquitted herself well, though there were moments of generalisation in her performance, and I ached for some of her speeches to carry a more subtle sense of power. On the whole, though, a fine performance, and a convincing portrayal of this strong woman. Amy Sears, on the other hand, gave an interestingly ethereal portrayal of devout daughter Edwina, though her performance lacked the full extent of the subtle power carried by this quiet character. However, Sarah Mair Gates, reprising the part of Morfydd, has lost none of the fire and wilfulness demanded of the part, and is to be commended for the simple force communicated through her lines and movements.

Graham Hill as Iestyn, through whose eyes this story of family, workers’ rights, degradation and violence in the run-up to the Chartist Rebellion, reprised his role with a good amount of verve, while Henry Pickett revisits the role of Dada Mortymer with the same immense strength with which he developed it for this production’s original outing.

Julie McNicholls added her own unique style to the roles she undertook – her voice clear and her narrative speeches satisfying. However, out of the new cast members, the show was almost stolen by David Blumfield’s portrayal of the characters of Iolo Milk and Billy Handy. Taking on a more sexually expressive duo of roles than his recent performances would permit, his two primary responsibilities as the on-heat milkman and the sleazy union agitator were taken on with breathtaking energy and high quality characterisation, thus further confirming his reputation as a thrusting performer.

I did have a few problems with accents, generally – the local accents of some of those from the community showing up those from further afield – but this was overtaken, particularly in the second half of the play, by the sheer force of the story. Of course, this force cannot be effected without top-quality communication by the performers.

Almost a year ago, I wrote that men and women dead in their graves would thank Cheshire and his company for their simple, but effective telling of their powerful, crushing story, and called this production the most beautiful and powerful I had yet to see. Some months on, with a casting facelift and a change of stage environment, I was forced to reconsider. I have reconsidered, and I am pleased to say I stand by my first review. Community theatre in Wales watch out – because the Chartists are coming!

Reviewed by: Paddy Cooper

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