Theatre in Wales

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At Wales Millennium Centre

Wales Millennium Centre/ Theatre503/ Tara Finney Productions- Land of Our Fathers , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November 19, 2015
At Wales Millennium Centre by Wales Millennium Centre/ Theatre503/ Tara Finney Productions- Land of Our Fathers Each audience is its own gathering. Aberystwyth’s Arts Centre is host, week in week out, to events and visitors of an impossibly eclectic range. Scotland’s First Minister is as likely to be present one week as the Young Farmers’ Eisteddfod the next. Some audiences are demonstrably different, as when a Frankie Valli tribute show comes west. The audience for Chris Urch’s two and a half hour play has a different feel to it, not huge but demonstrable enough to prompt some mid- and post-show market research.

Not statistically valid but “Land of Our Fathers” has brought in audience members who are Arts Centre attenders, but not to its theatre offerings. The cause is print media. A tour in Wales is too brief to allow word-of-mouth recommendation to accrue. The bulk of social media is narrow-casting, its proponents in general lacking a background in advertising. This audience has been prompted by print. The designers of the Aberystwyth brochure have given the production a two-column spread but it comes with some advantages. The copy is well-written- not a strength in Wales’ theatre- it has a striking graphic, it declares to have a cast of six, and comes with a recommendation, a real one, the Times calling it “a high voltage production.” But most of all it has a subject matter that is not small or introverted. Graeme Farrow and the WMC team are to be commended for getting it out on the road. The irony is that an apparently total play of Wales has been found at a tiny venue in Battersea.

But “Land of Our Fathers” is not really a product of Wales. For a start Chris Urch’s characters are six miners but they come without the pall of sentimentality that is the genre’s usual overhang. Made in Wales, that admirable company of the last century, had a rule in its dramaturgical selection- no sagas of doughty mining families. The production comes with a single-sheet cast and creative list, with no details of its dramatist. Urch has that significant advantage for a writer for theatre. He is a trained actor and actors know that words are not the things in themselves but springboard for stage action. He has been beneficiary of new writing schemes in another place. Soho, Arcola, Theatre 503 and Royal Court are the best cluster for a writing apprentice anywhere in the world. But then they employ that theatre professional deemed dispensable by theatre in Wales, the literary manager.

Director Paul Robinson has a strong cast. The action is spread across the characters and acting honours are equal across the generations. John Cording and Cornelius Booth are the mining veterans, Tomos Eames, Joshua Price and Taylor Jay-Davies are the new, and last, generation of miners- the setting is in 1979. Robert Jezek is representative of that first generation of Poles who came to Britain, a veteran of Monte Cassino. Signe Beckman’s design and Hartley Kemp’s lighting together create a potent setting with utter conviction.

They are in service to a play. To sustain itself over this span of time a play needs craft, apart from the fact that form is also a crux of aesthetic pleasure. Chris Urch deploys a range of skills in sustaining flow and rhythm. The action contains song. The production gives thanks for the use of a song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, the choice the most unlikely. One of the six miners sings Tom Lehrer’s “Periodic Table” without hesitation.

The situation requires that characters be present at the site of the rockfall that is offstage. This makes the rhythm of full cast scenes, trios and duos achievable without awkward reasons for exits. The writing uses objects for dramatic action, as small and as everyday as a rich tea biscuit. Urch closes his first half with a dramatic climax- the fad for interval-less productions is in part due to the loss of mastery for this particular dramatic skill. The second act opens with a visual touch that needs no words. It then goes into territory that is very dark. “Land of Our Fathers” has a situation where only two conclusions are feasible and Urch creates another, one of rich and unexpected irony.

The era of its setting is lightly done. Boomtown Rats and the Buggles precede the show. Much of the commentary on the 1980s comes from those who were not there. The view here of the election-winner of May 1979 is that from a post hoc perspective. At the time of her accession her popularity was vastly below that of the Member for Cardiff South-east. Her triumphalist supporters of now omit to remember that on a first visit to Washington DC, in opposition rather than power, she and her entourage had difficulty in finding anyone who wanted to meet her. There is a line in the script that is firmly of now. One of the veterans, giving the young Mostyn a blast of opinion, talks of politicians meeting his needs. The notion of politics as a strand of consumerism is recent. The language of “offer” or “delivery” did not exist. That tiny element apart “Land of Our Fathers” lives well within its historical timeframe.

A theatre-maker with a track record both sides of the lights came out of this production visibly affected. The ending blends all that has gone before. Actors, designers, sound-makers and all the others in collaboration on a piece that is unashamed to be about writing craft, action and emotion; the result looks as if it can bring in an audience. Simples? No, titanically difficult.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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