Theatre in Wales

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London Moves Uneasily to West Wales

At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd Cymru- Blackthorn , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , November 22, 2010
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Clwyd Cymru- Blackthorn Terry Hands is as usual his own lighting director. In the second act he uses two dozen ceiling lights to catch wonderfully a particular spectral dewy light of Autumn. Colin Towns' wholly original music has an elusive quality, jazzy and jaunty with slight discordances. Vivien Parry cannot fail to be a pleasure to watch. Just hear the snarl she gives to the single word “principles” in the first scene. Her character, a cut-out from a Sunday newspaper style section, turns “home” into “hoe-eem.”

Theatr Clywd Cymru is never going to deliver less than class. In this case their combined talents are turned to an under-powered piece. It does not have the gloves-off glee of satire but nor is it quite the expected comedy of cultural mismatch. Without the logic or impetus of a full-blooded drama it hovers in tone uncertainly between genres. It feels like a script that has not decided what it really wants to be.

Slick townies versus wily country folk is a plot staple that goes back centuries. Its most recent appearance on a British stage came from the late Simon Gray. He hit a peak with “Hidden Laughter” which married sharp observation on cultural difference with a sad humanity.

Townies moving out has now become a popular newspaper regular. “City” is invariably a short-hand for Crouch End or Putney- nobody in newspaperland ever lives in Liverpool or Leicester. (To type “Blackthorn’s” family live in Clissold Park Road.) More often than not “country” turns out to be half a dozen junctions down the M4. Man- and it’s always Man- is always whizzing back to Town to pitch new TV programmes while Woman has to suffer pong, tractors and the chronic shortage of dinner parties.

One wearisome series has made it into popular book form. “The Pheasants Revolt”, set a few miles from the Welsh border, depicts a world robbed of art, politics, rural poverty, health service rationalisations, crime, drugs, or drunkenness. West Wales in “Blackthorn” substitutes rancour for cheeriness but what does surprise, the odd name and accent apart, is how un-Welsh in flavour it is.

The play was heading for the Hampstead Theatre. That theatre has a new management trying to regain its somewhat lost lustre and the play did not make it. A piece that might fly in Swiss Cottage has to work harder when it is back in Wales. Its location is blurry. It is most likely Pembrokeshire, probably South of the Landsker or possibly Western Carmarthenshire. Yet Wife early on that says the police are thirty miles away. That is possible in the middle of the Cambrians, just about, but not South they aren’t.

The population churn of the West is a fact of life; architects, IT workers, House of Lords' Librarians out, baritones, surgeons, hoteliers and an array of others in. There is a ripe comedy to be made from this but Kate’s first dialogue with farmer Huw- bucolic, anoraked, hair-brushed-forward Ifan Huw Dafydd- is cartoonish. She is the type of Londoner, rarely without three inch heels, prone to recite recipes that contain Fairtrade chocolate. But the language between the newly arrived in West Wales and the long settled is much more interesting than the depiction here. It has a tentative, testing, veiled quality to it, that is also far more intriguing dramatically.

Philip Bretherton's Tom is a self-declared alpha male with a substrate of misyogyny, that hints at a derivation in pornography. He has a penchant for lines like “I create value.” But he is just another incomer, and not a wholly likely one, converting farm property to holiday accommodation. (It sounds as he is creating a guesthouse. This lacks business logic if the property is as remote as described; it should be self-catering.)

“It is our land. We do have that right” he declaims. That may be but he appears to live in a county where all planning guidelines have been dispensed with. Instead the action is a series of escalating provocations, culminating in a plot point with a half-nod to “Jean de Florette”. The noxious Londoners could more truthfully have been dramatised as scuppered and driven mad by regulatory overload and delay.

Amy Morgan and Rhys Wadley give engaging and animating performances of promise. But their characters are inert in terms of development and lean on dialogue rummaged from the second hand box. “I saw you and felt something inside me...something I never felt before” she says. Might a Pembrokeshire teenager call himself “just a simple country boy?” Is a grizzled farmer going to say to a sexy new neighbour “You look a bit like I was going to say lost.” Also, there is the nagging thought that a character like Evie would be focused on affiliation with new schoolmates, however unwanted the wrench to Wales might have been. The group at her age is everything.

Structurally, act one does not close on a high dramatic point. The play ends abruptly with some physical horseplay and a conclusion that feels grafted on awkwardly. The LNG pipeline had national energy security status given it by Whitehall. The politics of protest and the arm-twisting of the planning process that took place are a fascinating subject for drama in their own right. That the Grid in its planning of critical infrastructure wandered around purchasing random freehold property stretches all dramatic credibility.

It is not that theatre requires a grim naturalism. But drama does posit individuals who live necessarily within social and political institutions. Those need to derive from the world. Dissolve the logic of the way they work and a lot else dissolves besides.

Wales races towards a political decision of irrevocable gravity. It is an irony that its theatre is more or less a politics-free zone. As for the strange population mix of the Western counties they await their author. “Blackthorn” feels less diagnosis of its subject than symptom.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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