Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Critical Survey

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales- Love Letters to the NHS , Llandrindod, Haverfordwest, Wrexham, Tredegar, Carmarthen et al , July 31, 2018
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales- Love Letters to the NHS A new month and theatre's epicentre shifts to Edinburgh. From July, interest in the production at Aberaeron has been high. This is not surprising. The pieces that preceded it- a half-year round-up on the end of Lyn Gardner as a broadsheet critic, for instance- are a minority taste for obsessives. If interest in a national company is greater, then that is how it should be.

The productions have, on average, been well received. As for the one that was selected to play Aberaeron and Haverfordwest, a reviewer is just one set of eyes and ears. The track record of criticism shows that anyone is well capable of being cloth-eared and addle-headed. To set the record straight, Sandra Bendelow, Scriptography founder, was at the second of the four performances. Hers is a voice to be respected and her verdict “theatre at its finest” should stand as the critical record.

Elsewhere, audiences have obviously been treated to fine work. All art-making is a risk. But if risk is to be managed, then it was likely that Peter Cox and Llion Williams, Alan Harris and Alexandria Riley were pretty much set to deliver magic. But then Cox and Harris are dramatists who have served their dues.

Kevin Johnson for Get the Chance and Jafar Iqbal for Wales Arts Review were wowed by “For All I Care”. Kevin Johnson was at Llandrindod Wells to applaud “the Stick Maker Tales.” Jafar Iqbal was also complimentary about “As Long as the Heart Beats” but less so for “Come Back Tomorrow.”

Again for Wales Arts Review 31st July: “... script fails to offer any satisfying catharsis...a good production could have hidden those narrative flaws...lacklustre... constantly trips up on...lines...decision not to make more use of the intriguing setting certainly seems like a missed opportunity...The play is a static one...certainly contender for most damning piece but, sadly, it’s also contender for most underwhelming.”

A London paper managed to get to what was intended to be a big event. Kate Wyver was at “Come Back Tomorrow” for “the Guardian” with rare words in the reviews of Wales: “Gloria...a member of the Windrush generation..Her husband trips from one job to another, moving to Swansea with the idea that the Welsh are friendlier than the English. But it doesn’t seem so. Spat at, yelled at and recoiled from on her daily rounds, Gloria learns the difference between a scream of pain and one of anger...the racist insults Gloria faced have spilled through time undeterred. Preparing to hand in her resignation, Judy’s compassion slips.”

It says something that the company has had to go to a playwright, a terrific one, from Notting Hill to get this script. The other events may have left an imprint somewhere. But “Peggy's Song” and “Laughter is the Best Medicine” appear to have received no critical response. The one report from “Touch” was guarded.

The critical response is one level. But theatre is a public event. The article of July 5th was made up of 84 sentences. Just 9 sentences contained any element of judgement or personal perspective. The remainder were broader in content, reiterations from the public record, all verifiable.

Chris Patten delivered a prestigious public lecture in 2017. Asked at the end to sum up his many years in public life, he alighted on an aspect of the true democratic culture. That, he said, was the ability to enter into argument without quarrel. Kenneth Clarke appeared on television earlier this year, locked in argument with Bernard Jenkin and then declared their relationship to be one of friendship. The report from Aberaeron was ad rem not ad hominem.

In fact a notable aspect of the company is the continuity that transcends any particular management. Obviously no meeting was ever convened to propose “let's have a show in Aberaeron which no-one in Aberaeron sees”- of the 16 who were there, none were recognisable as being from the town itself. There is an irony that theatre- where much responsibility has been taken on by men from television- is held to account in the language from that jungle of an industry- the ratings are poor.

A multi-location event like this should have been seen by a lot of people. After ten years and investment in the brand the box office gross ought to have been £90,000 plus. That audience is not excessive- it would have represented playing to 0.21% of the population of Wales.

But the company has a tradition of minimal advertising, on and off, in the localities where it plays. Kirsty Sedgeman, in the only book so far on the company, records the practice in 2010 and it has been noted since. So there is nothing new in the one A4 sheet of advertising. Managements operate within corporate culture. The signals are that box office has never mattered too much. In 2018 it may be surmised that the same thumbs-up to minimising audience was signalled as the norm. But box office is not just about cash, it is about participation, it is about us.

There was an exception. The report of July 5th contained an error in “the next event programmes a group of celebrity comedians for a single night only, slaps on an entry fee of £27.50, and calls it national theatre.” In fact, the tickets for 21st July were priced at £29.50 with concessions £2 cheaper. The evening brought in an audience of 350. But this was an unusual item, and a very particular interpretation of why we have public subsidy at all. It is unambiguously the corrective to market failure. Where a group of celebrity TV comedians is concerned there is no market failure. They have no need of any sort for assistance from a subsidised company.

In Gwynedd, millions have been spent on a prestige venue. Millions have been spent on a national producing company in Cardiff. When one comes to the other it is in order to play to 30 people. Twice. Brad Channer reported the same from the Royal Gwent Hospital July 23rd for Art Scene in Wales. He too took a dissenting view. “I felt very trapped and force-fed one opinion on the NHS. It was also an extremely small capacity audience event so another example of our generously funded English-language National Theatre only reaching very limited numbers of people.”

The visit to Bangor has the same motivation as the last visit, the walk up the Watkin Path. Its purpose is that a scorecard in Cardiff may record a connection with the north. But the connection with the people of Gwynedd is zero, similar to the visit to Ceredigion in the winter. Pontrhydfendigaid- no public transport, no matinees- was chosen for its convenience for one of the makers' university day job in Aberystwyth. The source of this admission of venue choice was the company itself.

There is a difference between 2018 and 2014. The company in the Snowdonia National Park is remembered for leaving its mark. In Bangor in 2018 there is a difference: no spray paint has been left on the roof of Pontio.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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