Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd Cymru- A Toy Epic , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November-15-07
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Clwyd Cymru- A Toy Epic Theatr Clwyd Cymru has a mission statement crafted with some delicacy. A five-point statement of aspiration, it dedicates the theatre “to serve as a research, training and development centre for present and future generations of Welsh theatre practitioners.” One strand of this has a tradition of looking to Welsh prose fiction for stage adaptation. The previous regime dramatised Caradog Prichard’s “Full Moon” and took it as far as London. “Porth y Byddar” playwright Manon Eames has previously adapted a trio of Alexander Cordell novels. In conjunction with long-time collaborator, director Tim Baker, their latest choice for adaptation is Emyr Humphreys’ 1958 novel “A Toy Epic.”


A rule of thumb of the film business has it that is that the best of films do not come from the best of novels. (David Lean’s version of “Great Expectations” is the one to prove the rule wrong.) Whatever, Emyr Humphreys’ “A Toy Epic” is a considerable novel. Early drafts were read, and encouragement given, by Graham Greene & T S Eliot. The Times pronounced it one of the best of its year, to stand alongside Boris Pasternak, Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson. In June 1959 it won the Hawthornden Prize and the author received his award from Aneurin Bevan.


A dramatist faces two challenges in translating “A Toy Epic” to stage. Both relate to the qualities that make the novel quite so strong. In the tradition of the Bildungsroman it takes its three characters, the boys Michael, Albie and Iorwerth, from childhood through puberty to their year of leaving school. The first dramatic challenge is the fabric of the novel which is rich in detail about the subtle differences and tensions of class and faith. The author notes that Michael’s mother, for example, as an indicator of class difference, always wears gloves in the garden. From a dramatic viewpoint these small differences loom large if lived but are not such meaty substance for a play.

The second challenge is that the novel’s form is that of three interior voices. In early 1958 it was broadcast as a radio serial under the title Tri Llais, its title in Welsh. Interior voices grip in a novel but are hard to transfer to a medium based on interaction and confrontation.

Michael, for instance, is pressed into an untruth to protect a school comrade, and later found out by his vicar father. In his room he writes in darkness with a stump of pencil on the wall above his bed “I HAVE NO FRIEND IN THE WIRLD.” In the novel it is highly affecting, from the viewpoint of a child, but hard to equal on stage.

Similarly, Albie tackling his pubescent pimples and bristles described from within is painfully felt. The drama in Iorwerth’s development is his faith, its inner declaration, its later splintering. Crises of faith are difficult to dramatise. Ronald Harwood attempted it in his play “J J Farr” and even with Albert Finney and Bob Peck it flumped badly. But Tim Baker, along with Manon Eames and the lighting and sound team at Mold, are incapable of producing anything that is less than technically superlative. Throw the Flintshire telephone directory at them and they would stage it with flair and invention.

The way in which the difficult source material is handled is via a fast-moving action in which the cast of seven weave at speed in and of character with a chorus of voices to fill in the narrative. On a steeply inclined stage, before a magnificent backcloth, a homage to Sir Kyffin Williams, the story leads through fights, pranks, outings, first sexual explorings, all the small but deep triumphs and humiliations of childhood. The nascent conflicts are there, Welsh-English, rural-urban, church-chapel. Such is the sustained pace that the cast are barely off-stage throughout, a company display of skill and energy.

However, the nature of the material, the episodic nature of the story, means the play, fast-paced as it is, suffers from a certain rhythmic flatness. In the dense text maybe as much as two-thirds is given over to the chorus with their narrative lines. Add in the paucity of props- a catapult, a peashooter- and the production, although faultless in playing and design, makes for crisp and clear theatre but is not so equally memorable as drama.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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