Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Documentary on Forty Years of Wales' Foremost Community Theatre

At Theatr Felinfach

Hay/ Wes Glei! , S4C , September 15, 2015
At Theatr Felinfach by Hay/ Wes Glei! “If there were fifteen or twenty Theatr Felinfachs…” says a speaker towards the close of this lively hour-long documentary journey through forty years of the venue’s existence. The transmission of culture and heritage from the past is not enough, it is the making of culture that matters. That, in the telling of this film, has taken several forms, importantly across the media but also across the generations.

“Theatr Fawr Felinfach” starts with the theatre tradition that existed long before the two hundred and sixty seat venue had even been conceived. Euros Lewis provides the historical background of the extraordinary fecundity of home-created theatre. Ceredigion between the world wars had one hundred and fifty amateur companies. Little Llandewi Brefi alone had three companies. The producers would typically be the local headmaster or minister, the places of performance the village halls and the many Memorial Halls built after the First World War. Rural Ceredigion in the words of the presenter had two things in surfeit, dairy cattle and drama companies.

Aeron Davies and Gret Jenkins recall audiences of four to five hundred, some members walking for miles, cramming into the spaces, even pressing against windows to see in. The tradition of community companies thrived until the mid-nineteen-sixties. The thinning was less the effect of television than the loss of the producers and the makers. The number of ministers declined and headmasters no longer lived automatically cheek by jowl to their place of work.

Ceredigion did not join the trend in the rest of Wales. The theatre tradition was kept vibrant with the appointment of dramatist Idwal Jones by the University of Aberystwyth, his job to teach night classes across the County. Mary Lewis from Llanllwni founded Cwmni Pasiant Llandysul and the County was one of the first across Britain to appoint a drama co-ordinator.

One of Felinfach’s enduring strands has been its pantomime. An early pantomime in Caerwedros was such a success that in 1968 its repeat was requested in Felinfach. The County’s Education Committee was inspired to build a theatre to meet the clear demand for theatre. An old tractor store midway in the Aeron Valley provided the opportunity. With some architectural ingenuity the zinc roof was removed and the interior remodelled. The facilities for the time, led by the depth of the stage, were of a then inconceivable modernity.

Like any new institution it took a step or two to find its feet. Wil Sam and “Krapps Last Tape” in translation were accompanied by theatre attendants in bow ties and long dresses. Audiences did not flock. A change of management ensued and the theatre settled to a diet of Saunders Lewis, Elfyn Jenkins, Joe Orton. One play premiered in Felinfach made it to London’s Royal Court.

The footage from the many pantomimes conveys productions embued with a Dionysiac wildness. They soon expanded beyond the stage, extending to film of an exuberant comedy shot first locally and then even on the ferry to Rosslare. Waiting lists for tickets grew to as high as four hundred.

Four other factors elevated the significance of the venue. One was the expansion across media, the making of a full-length film, another the founding of the local radio station. The foundation of CIC, Cymni Ieunctid Ceredigion, was crucial. Visiting companies included Dawns Dyfed.

From its early days the company saw theatre as opportunity for community activism. A field adjacent to the theatre earmarked for a hundred new houses was the subject in 1976 of “Pentrefi Pwy?” Planning permission was not granted. The closing of the dairy plant in the 1980s was a huge blow to the community. The departure of the cheese-maker, after its wholesale swallowing of Assembly Government money, was met with a rapidly executed piece of guerrilla theatre “Drwg yn y Caws.”

The film has a couple of scenes with focus groups around a flipchart. The leader asks for words of connotation for Theatr Felinfach. “Llwyfan”, “Cymuned” say the adults, while from the youngest member comes a word of multiple cadence “enjoyio.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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