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A Good Night Out in the Valleys- National Theatre of Wales , Blackwood Miners Institute , March 16, 2010
At National Theatre by A Good Night Out in the Valleys- National Theatre of Wales The Valleys are different. The Morlais flowed red or yellow in a way that Dyfi, Dee or Usk never did- the colour depended on whether the outfall from the ICI or button factory predominated. The “Disturbed Districts” of the nineteenth century have been on stage before. Alan Osborne and Ed Thomas caught the fire and the grit. Manon Eames and Tim Baker dramatised the historic passion searingly last year in “Canrif.”

The hub of the plot in “A Good Night Out in the Valleys” is the Emblem That Must Be Done Away With, in the name of modernity. It’s Marchmain House in “Brideshead Revisited”, the cinema in “the Last Picture Show”, the bird sanctuary in “Fly Away Home”, the rink in Kander and Ebb’s 1984 musical. That does not matter greatly. Literary critics say there are only seven plots anyhow and the threatened ’Stute is depicted with great affection. Boyd Clack’s fading MC Con Williams waves his most valued item of equipment, the plunger for the eternal toilet problem.

The configuration of Blackwood’s Miners Institute offered a big space, six or hundred square feet. The writing did not fill the physical space. With a high energy cast of six most scenes comprised twosomes or threesomes. Siwan Morris’ Dirty Karen put on an impressive boxing display. Oliver Wood was a vibrant presence in his three characters, including the stand-in MC. “Would you like super sex?” ran a joke. Pause. “I’ll have the soup please.” But take away the few songs, some scrabbles and there was limited dramatic energy on stage.

In the quantity of scenes the influence of television was manifest. Two hours cannot be filled without a broad sweep of dramatic rhythm. A range of characters and a portmanteau scene structure are fine but they need to be yoked to a dramatic momentum. There is an old attribute given to the divinity. His circumference is everywhere, his centre nowhere. It can do for God but it doesn’t do for drama.

Pithily worded Brechtian surtitles preceded most scenes. But Brecht also wrote that theatre needs to “show how politics or business works. But writers are less interested in how things work.” A lone surveyor from London does not write a survey report on the likelihood of gold deposits, then dictate an access road and demolition of historic buildings. It does not happen that way. Local politics are denser, more interesting, and incidentally more human. Look at the finesse with which Meredydd Barker treated the subject of civic improvement a couple of years ago.

No topic is exempt from comedy. Hospitals are ripe for it, and Peter Nichols and Paddy Chayevsky have done it. But, given just a single scene, no nurse leans over a patient dying from bronchial disease and says “Don’t look good.” It does not happen. But the peripheral characters were thinly written. Alenka, the Pole in the Christmas cake factory, was mainly used for some quite comic mistranslations. But the Poles we host are simply a lot more interesting than that.

Theatre lives by dialectic. Huw Rhys’ Kyle, scarred son of a 1984 scab, was the Other, the outsider with the power to destroy. But the character soon started melting. The dialectic became verbal with Con talking of “us” and “them”, the “them” being a mix of the ironmasters, the NCB and it successors. The real “other” in the script was a voice heard twice on a phone.

In the emotional encounters the writing took on a sometimes blurry quality. “Do you think we can break free of the past?” “The past is a trap.” “This place is full of ghosts. It’s about time they were put to rest.” “Destroy this Institute and part of you will die.”

As elsewhere the Valleys are awash with the gloss of modernity. Just look at Blackwood’s Chartist Bridge. Whether it is the right modernity or not much more than an identikit row of Subways and Dominos is a subject screeching for dramatic exploration. I have heard personal testimony of a Valleys IT initiative which has had a galvanising and empowering effect on first-time users. The internet appears here only as a quick money-making scheme through The reality is deeper and more interesting.

“A Good Night Out in the Valleys” gave the impression of so wanting to be liked. But just like a newcomer at a party geniality and likeability are themselves not enough. There is genuine popular drama, John Byrne’s “Slab Boys”, “the Boys from the Blackstuff”, “Shameless”, “High Hopes” itself, and acerbity is not a disqualifier for popularity. The programme had a revealing note “we are sensitive to the way we should represent valleys life.” As an aesthetic premise it is pretty questionable. But the script reportedly underwent a particular process; groupwork at the cost of the writer being given free rein. Your writer can be trusted.

The band 4th Street Traffic were great. Ceri James lit beautifully a backcloth representing the sea that was evocative of a Richard Diebenkorn abstract. The cast received a mighty applause. They deserved it. In the end it is the audience that matters. I asked my neighbours, both in their mid twenties. “Yeah, quite good. Funny.” That’s plenty good enough to be going on with.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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