Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd- Stone City Blue , Newport Riverfront , November 15, 2004
Wales’s best dramatist, Ed Thomas, has not written a play since Gas Station Angel in 1998. Ten years, since 1998’s House of America, with a play a year on average, then nothing. Only constant nagging by Clwyd Theatr Cymru boss Terry Hands forced a new play out of him and there was always going to be the fear that it was written only to stop that nagging.

And early reports seemed to confirm that suspicion – although there was always the possibility that national critics from the Guardian and the Indie, fed on a diet of conventional drama, were again blinkering themselves to that new way of telling it (it had happened with Ed Thomas’s other plays, after all). Too Welsh, too different.

Well, I don’t know what it was like in Mold but when I caught up with Stone City Blue in Newport, prior to its Cardiff run, I came out breathless from the exhilaration of a scintillating piece of stage writing, a fluid and lyrical dramatic poem, a montage of fragmented tales of anger, despair, love and death that could swing from the obscene to the beautiful and from the hilarious to the tragic. It was quite extraordinary.

But it’s not the Ed Thomas we had come to expect.

This is still the voice of the man who created East From the Gantry, Envy, Flowers of the Dead Red Sea and Song from a Forgotten City, but the voice is saying different things.

Whatever it was that stopped Ed Thomas writing in 1998, whatever killed the old playwright with his obsession with the unreliability of memory, the need to reinvent, the vision of a New Wales, whatever that was has given birth to the new Ed Thomas.

The Ed Thomas of Stone City Blue still deals in self-referential characters and familiar places but instead of meditating on national identity he now looks inward and tries to come to terms with his own personal identity – or identities, since there are four characters on stage albeit with one narrative.

“Whose story is this ?” asks one of the four. “Whose identity are we protecting here ?”

And the play is, of course, autobiographical: those black dogs have clearly haunted the author, Charlie and friends have taken their toll, a person has disintegrated. And resurfaced, reformed, to translate the experience into pure theatre.

It isn’t that you need to know, or suspect, that this is a kind of confessional, an expiation, a lament; the causes are both specific and universal – infidelity, drink and drugs and suchlike – and this is about the way a life can fall apart.

Ray (here played by Nia Roberts, Ryland Teifi, Alys Thomas and Richard Harrington as R1, R2, R3 and R4) has booked in to a hotel room – The Big Sleep, in fact, the scene of some the author’s scenes in the recent collaboration with Pearson and Brookes (as well as a metaphor for death) – where he tries to deal with his demons. He has an imaginary conversation with John Malkevitch, the star co-owner of the hotel and relives parts of his life that have taken him to the edge of suicide: a lost love, a dying father, self-loathing, jealousy, coke…

The structure of the play is challenging, as you would expect with four actors representing the one person and with scenes re-enacted, and the lurch from surrealistic comedy to bleak pessimism, from moving poetry to coarse obscenities, is disturbing. There is no clear storyline. John Hardy’s music, Jeanine Davies’s lighting and Matthew Williams’s sound are integral parts of the narrative, with Mark Bailey’s hotel room having furniture floating in the air.

I found it utterly engaging, although some editing wouldn’t do any harm and the more intimate space of Chapter will suit the play better than the mainstage of the Riverfront: I laughed, I nearly wept, I wondered at the brilliant craftsmanship in the writing and I marvelled at the command of theatricality. Ed Thomas directs far better than most playwrights in charge of their own work and Harrington turns in a marvellous performance in a first-rate production.

This is twenty-first century theatre at its best, a brilliant return from limbo, a new beginning for Ed Thomas, the playwright who defined the end of the twentieth century in Wales.

Stone City Blue is at Chapter for the next two weeks.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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