Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Keystone of Wales' Theatre for 2017

The Best of Touring Theatre

Fluellen Theatre Company- Granton Street , St Margaret’s Church Hall, Mountain Ash , October 15, 2017
The Best of Touring Theatre by Fluellen Theatre Company- Granton Street A GUIDE TO THE SEQUENCE "THE BEST OF TOURING THEATRE" CAN BE READ BELOW 23RD SEPTEMBER 2021

An animated day event, reported on this site, was held on October 5th 2007 on the subject of national theatre. The panel members were knowledgable, the auditorium was full and the discussions were lively. A league-one director- at the forefront still in theatre in Wales- declared that Wales had no dramatic canon, no dramatists to speak of. “Rubbish” went a cry from a knowledgable voice in the audience. The average audience member cannot know for sure because the plays that enthralled former audiences are not to be seen today. But things are changing.

The international presence of theatre today from Wales is a shadow of what it was a century ago. When “Change” toured the United States it won the commendation of Woodrow Wilson. Its author, J O Francis, is being brought back into the light from a period of obscurity. His gradual reinstatement was led by a monograph by Alyce von Rothkirch of Swansea University in 2014. His plays are again being performed after a long interval. “The Bakehouse” from 1920 is to be seen this month in Tredegar.

Francis lived from 1882-1956. P H Burton was of the next generation, his life split almost symmetrically between Glamorgan and the USA. In Wales he was crucial in the history of Britain's theatre. In the USA, where he lived from 1954, he was first director and then president of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. His knowledge was vast and his reputation was the “backstage brains of Broadway”. In addition, before this second flowering of his life, he left a trail of writing and broadcasting in Wales, including a political drama. It is to the credit of Fluellen to have taken “Granton Street” and brought it to audiences of 2017. With a cast of ten, common in the theatre of the era, it is an achievement by any standard.

“Granton Street” was premiered October 10th 1934 by the YMCA Players at the New Hall in Aberavon. Burton, a teacher of inspirational quality in Port Talbot, had delivered a lecture on “The Fundamentals of Play-acting” and was asked if it were possible to write a three-act play with a single setting, action and just a single entrance. Burton rose to the challenge and “Granton Street”, a first play, was the result.

It is a remarkable first play by any criterion and evidence, were it ever needed, that a steeping in theatre is first requirement for writing for theatre. The unities of time and place are a formidable discipline- interestingly it is exactly what Jez Butterworth has achieved in “the Ferryman.” But the accomplishment of dramatic writing is the way in which perspectives pivot and alter as the action unfolds.

Thus Andrew Lennon's Uncle Jim has been set up by patriarch Tom Davies (Christopher Pegler-Lambert) as the family waster. When he appears he has cadences of O'Casey's Joxer but Burton has him evolve into a character of richer ambivalence. Like James Graham in his brand new hit “Labour of Love” Burton uses a by-election to spur his action. Both plays have a Labour candidate parachuted in from outside who tests traditional political allegiance.

The emerging action, which elevates “Granton Street” beyond its own era, is its probing of a political verity. Stability in the political realm demands a tribal loyalty. But education, represented by student doctor-son John Davies (Simon Peter Ancellon), provides just the opposite. The gift of education is the ability to ask new questions, the dissolution of certainty is its consequence.”Stop thinking of people in herds” says Jim to firebrand nephew Will, a performance of sulphurous power from James Scannell. “The few and the many” protests John “mankind isn't divided into two camps...My views are broadening.” “You mean softening” retorts Will.

This makes “Granton Street” more substantial political theatre than “We're Still Here.” The Cardiff Club will not be able to make that judgement because they will not be seeing it. Nonetheless that is the case. It is not surprising. The arts are like other sectors. It is always the tiddlers who innovate. An analogous dramatist in England, Githa Sowerby, was reinstated also by a company on the far fringe of public subsidy. The audiences who have had benefit of seeing “Granton Street” have done so thanks to the Arts Council's “Night Out” scheme.

The venue is particular. Burton himself was often in the same church hall and Fluellen's performance here is due to the organisation of Llafur, the Welsh People's History Society. Director Peter Richards takes a short role as an election campaigner and then does the sound, pieces of piano and the clamour of an election night. The performance is in the round with a few items of period furniture. The lighting is that of ceiling panels in a church hall. Audience and players sit in the same lighted space. The dressing room is the hall's kitchen. The two spaces have the standard screen between them which means that the company must keep total silence during Burton's two hours and three acts. The banishment of virtually all technical involvement matters not in the slightest. A script that matters, actors of power who command a space, a director who gets the rhythm and keeps up the energy, it is theatre.

“Granton Street” plays Port Talbot, Tuesday 24th October, Dyffryn Lower Comprehensive School.

Postscript: One Week Later 22nd October

I first wrote about theatre in Wales in the Spring of 2007. There have been hundreds of productions since of every possible type, scale and degree of accomplishment. Not one has achieved the level of readership that “Granton Street” did in its first few days. Some productions have achieved a readership running into the thousands but it has accumulated gradually after the show has ended. The response has astonished this author.

It is all the more surprising since “Granton Street” had the minimal of funding. Fluellen was unsuccessful in its application for a tour- which would even have included a set other than a few items of furniture. Its performances, in Swansea, Mountain Ash and Fishguard with the Port Talbot date to come, have not been seen by a large number of people.

An interest in Philip Burton's play of eighty-three years ago is obviously high. As well as making it onto stage, due to the collaboration of director Peter Richards and historian Angela V John, it has also made it into print.

Angela John has written an introduction to the full text of “Granton Street”. It is available from the small publisher, Alun Books, 3 Crown Street, Port Talbot, SA13 1BG. The price of the play is £8.00, postage included.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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