Theatre in Wales

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A Christmas to Treasure

At Dirty Protest

Dirty Protest- Last Christmas , Studio 5, Assembly George Square Edinburgh , August 8, 2014
At Dirty Protest by Dirty Protest- Last Christmas Edinburgh in August has a number of euphemisms particular to itself. “Spacious accommodation suitable for theatre company” used to be a good one. “Fringe theatre” is elastic enough to include fifteen pounds for an hour in the company of Jim Davidson. “Studio” sounds nice, the kind of venue to suit Dirty Protest. In truth Matthew Bulgo's one-actor play, already praised in Cardiff and Mold, is played in a basement lecture theatre. Its conversion to “studio” status comprises four lights and a velvet curtain as backdrop to mask the lecture screen.

It takes time for the audience to file in and sit down at our desks. The actor has a choice. He might hide somewhere outside- the venue has not an inch of backstage space- and scuttle in once his audience is settled. Or he can take the course of boldness. That is the one that Siön Pritchard chooses. He simply stands for the ten minutes or so, a figure in jeans and pink-red shirt, that it takes for his audience to squeeze behind their desks. There is no set, not a prop to lean on for comfort. Director Kate Wasserberg may be there in the background. But at midday on a sultry summer day in a packed teaching room it is just actor and us. All art requires its courage in the making but acting trumps them all.

Actors make good writers for theatre. They are good writers for a reason that poets cannot emulate. They have been there. They know its essence is rhythm, crescendo and diminuendo. They have a tendency too to be practised listeners and that helps. They know too that it is about action, which is not the same as activity. That is where the moonlighting writer of fiction or verse, irrespective of distinction in their own genre, suffers the disadvantage. Matthew Bulgo's script has his hero-protagonist Tom immediately in action. There is the wrapping of presents, the attempt to escape for a little privacy into the smallest room of the house.

The rhythm works in a threefold way. There is the contrast in scenes, the shift from crowded public event to private encounter. Tom's journey in this Christmas season takes him from raucous work party to a drink with old mates to an encounter of emotional gravity that every human may only face twice in a lifetime. There is the verbal rhythm; writer and actor have worked together to give every syllable its bounce. And there is the rhythm that an actor brings. Tom is more observer than full-blooded participant at the office party. A colleague espies him “careering towards me.” Siön Pritchard applies a pause as if to think out “like a festive freight train”.

“Last Christmas” is serious, but seriousness has nothing to do with earnestness. Tom observes another workmate who has mistakenly thought it to be a fancy dress event and arrived dressed as a saucy Christmas elf. A whip-round is proposed in reward for D J services. The D J services, he comments, have consisted of an iPod plugged into a pair of speakers. Tom speaks of his sense of displacement as “I felt like a French kiss at a family reason.” He recalls an episode when an old Swansea friend was rammed into a litter bin. His voice calling out through the slot turns him into R2D2. Another has the nickname of Spanner, apparently due to a far-off proficiency at school for design technology. But that's not it at all. “He's just a bit of a spanner really.”

Matthew Bulgo's writing does not do the flatulence of brand names. When trainers are mentioned they are plain trainers. The odd profanity occurs but the script avoids the error of piling up expletives in the belief that they confer authenticity. The moments of human truth are regular. Sion Pritchard gives the nervous sideways smile that is a claim for reconciliation. A meeting with old friends has the sense of old closeness jarring with the distance of the time inbetween. Family intimacy is expressed in an embrace of awkwardness between adults. Tom could confront situations with boldness. He speaks what might have been said. “I don't of course” is a repeated refrain.

On arrival in Swansea Tom, and Matthew Bulgo in the background, look quizzically at the city slogan “Ambition is Critical”. All strap-lines are trash-lines. But with Dirty Protest's emergence to make good the gobbling of Sgript Cymru and the conversion underway of Porters to create the Other Room it is more than a item of marketing glibness. Ambition is indeed critical.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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