Theatre in Wales

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Heart and Sinew

The Best of Touring Theatre

Muscle- Shock n Awe Performance Company , Lyric Theatre Carmarthen , April 19, 2012
The Best of Touring Theatre by Muscle- Shock n Awe Performance Company “You ask what it is to be a man” is the line, spoken by Brendan Charleson, which closes “Muscle’s” first half. It is the question that is the connecting thread for the eight or ten stories that make up the production’s latest version, a tour that has taken it from Taunton to Bangor and the Torch.

New characters have been located to deepen the texture. Dean Rehman’s taxi driver was taken long ago from his native Libya for his own safety. In 2011 as a man he is needed as government forces march east on a mission of murder and suppression. He gives testimony to appalling sexual crime perpetrated by the dying regime. This is “Muscle’s” grimmest point but even here it is punctuated by a truth of human practicality. After a month of combat the fighter has to return to his Cardiff taxi to resume making his living.

Writer-director Greg Cullen’s own description of the concept is “a multi-layered collage of hilarious, tragic and inspirational true stories, which explodes on stage using dance, physical theatre, song, drama, comedy and storytelling.” Phil Williams within minutes creates a witty, honed dance-movement sequence. The cast of five men take on the postures of snooker, rugby, drinking. Wary glances are made sideways in assessment of their neighbours in a public urinal. It is a topic mirrored later in the tale of Hopkin Hopkin whose personal endowment is as uncompromising as his Marxism.

Certain re-occurring themes give “Muscle” its inner architecture. Sons look up to fathers who are commonly distant, sometimes through absence, sometimes through illness, more often behind a veil of emotional continence. There is the common resort to violence as males lurch toward adulthood. In the first half the emotional centre is the story of Brendan Charleson’s Barry who has his childhood taken away at the age of ten. "I felt loneliness for the first time," he says. "I never slept like a baby again." His volatile life story eventually reaches a kind of equilibrium with “kids treating me like a climbing frame.”

In the second half Francois Pandolfo’s roles include Franky from Llandod. Unable to walk because of muscular dystrophy his weight drops to three and a half stone in his final months. The other members of the cast carry him with a fluid ease as he is taken to concerts and circuses. It is characteristic of the sharpness of observation that apparently no questions are asked if a stretcher is taken backstage after a gig.

Hugh Thomas’ first acting role was as a martinet schoolboy whose sexuality is teased by the school’s head prefect. The tale of first sexual experimentation here is one of hilarity. The confessor to whom they must collectively go is called Father Nobbs- “you couldn’t make it up.” The priest has a dome of a head “as colourful as St Peter’s as sunset.”

Sule Rimi has a role as one of a trio of jumpy hoodies at Cardiff’s docks. In its boom times the work is plentiful but varied; Cardiff operates a strict whites-first employment policy. History is not there to be used as a feel-good palliative for the present day. It is always easy to have fun with hippies but the tale of one of those nineteen-seventies smallholders comically going to market with his sheep is recounted with a wry affection and self-knowledge.

Shock n Awe’s turbulent beginnings of last year have been described in print. Despite them all “Muscle” scooped Edinburgh’s Herald Angel Award. Taliesin is co-producer of this tour, another wise decision after their backing of “the Wizard, the Goat…” Simon Clode does the audio-visual work for “Muscle.” The animations have a lot of charm to them and are the work of Kirsty Green.

“Muscle” as a concept has a near limitless elasticity to it. Future work may include a “Muscle” for Palestine. Ambition of this kind should be applauded. But ambition alone is not enough. This version of “Muscle” has a distinguishing deftness, physicality, lightness and originality to it.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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