Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

An Era Ends: the Last Production To Be Supported by the Arts Council of Wales

At National Theatre Wales

Feral Monster , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , April 26, 2024
At National Theatre Wales by Feral Monster “Feral Monster” toured fourteen years to the month after “A Good Night Out in the Valleys” opened at Blackwood Miners Institute. As the last production to enjoy public subsidy within the portfolio of the Arts Council of Wales the production asks for more than a review.

The principal aspiration for income for the company has switched from a national body to a local body in the form of Cardiff City Council. Neither the Board, nor any public authority, has ventured a word as yet on the topic of a name-change for the company.

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Three productions of musical theatre of Wales toured to Aberystwyth in the last season. For “Branwen: Dadeni”, which played for several nights, there was not a spare ticket to be had. “Operation Julie” played to a number a little short of three thousand.

The national theatre played for two nights. Prior to lights down on the second night, Saint David's Day, the ushers asked us to move and cluster so that the actors had a focus. We were forty in number. That kind of audience appeal has been a norm over the era of artistic directorship of Lorne Campbell.

The latest report from the Board, 28th March 2024, is declarative:

“Centring audiences in everything that we do...engagement that places the audience - the Welsh public - at the heart of what we do....In this way, we deliver deep and wide-ranging impact for the sector and the people of Wales.”

* * * *

As Dic Mortimer pointed out in his commentary in the autumn the company lacks a straightforward job function of marketing.

It has instead a Director of Audiences, an Audiences and Communication Co-ordinator, and an Audiences and Brand Manager. That combined effort got no further than drawing a fringe-scale audience.

Marketing management is mainly a lot of nuts-and-bolts stuff. Get the product right, the detail, the timeliness, the phone calls, some clear messaging. The company has a penchant for the abstract. Take this from a press release:

“The Audiences team were passionate advocates of a holistic approach of weaving values-centered thinking into the fabric of organisational strategy and company culture. We knew it would only strengthen the branding process as it unfolded.”

* * * *

One reason for an audience of forty is that the national company takes an approach to marketing that is unique. Its website has been regularly devoid of any mention of theatre productions.

In the period after 27th September 2023 Lorne Campbell appeared frequently on UK and Welsh media. It might have been thought that the company would wish to make public its 2024 tour.

Mention did eventually appear, albeit with a plural title “Feral Monsters.” “Branwen: Dadeni”, by contrast, had been long announced and was the topic of much media attention.

* * * *

The appetite for musical theatre is high. “Six” tours up and down and back again. The under-thirties revisit and on repeat visits take their parents. “Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York)” by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan has moved from regional theatres to Piccadilly Circus. Its audience is overwhelmingly the young, brought by strong word of mouth reputation.

“Feral Monster” should have been tapping into the same hunger and audience type. Its promotional copy offered “a banging new musical...touring across Wales’ theatres in spring 2024 with insane vocals mashing up grime, R&B, pop and rap. Think “Inside Out” meets “Skins” meets Kae Tempest.”

As is regular with the company the interest seemed less focussed on theatre than social events that surround the production. The promotion of “the Cost of Living” in 2023 drowned the actual theatre with social activities. The drowning in 2024 was not so great but a large amount of prose was sidetracked elsewhere.

The company has grown a language that is its own. Press releases are not many. One opened with:

"We gathered recently in person and virtually to share what’s coming up in 2023. We laughed, we danced, we shared, and we had a bloody good catch-up.”

So there was no Q and A to bring company closer to its public. Instead there were: “spaces designed for human connection – or at the least a paned (cuppa) and a chat! We’re here for anyone who wants to chat, either about the show or just generally, to join us before and after the performance – you'll find us on the comfy sofa.” Not on 1st March.

* * * *

The messaging lacked clarity. Once again the error was made that art is about thematic “exploration.” Feral Monster” purported to be exploration of nine generalised subjects. But this misunderstands art. It is inductive; the general emerges from the specific.

The lack of detail showed in the geography. The location was ostensibly Gwynedd or Anglesey, but the script lacked any sense of place. It could have been anywhere. As for teenage life there was an absence. Teenagers do not now drink overly but their leisure time has its habits. Rural Wales is piled high with sources of enjoyment that attract the attention of the Heddlu. But that is little likely to occur in a piece concocted in Cardiff.

The contrast with another piece of theatre, “Our Generation”- reviewed as "Verbatim Theatre" 22nd April 2022- was striking. Its depiction of teenage life, including in Anglesey, was precise and compassionate. That review said it:

“With the teenage years the twelve figures move into sexuality and drugs. The drugs that the law does not like are universally consumed. Fifteen year-olds, says Robyn in Glasgow, start off with diazepam. She discovers that she is happily bisexual.”

“Our Generation” was the work of another national theatre. But then, as the record shows, Rufus Norris and company have produced more Welsh theatre since the pandemic than Lorne Campbell and company.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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