Review: My pick of the best Welsh Theatre in 2019
End of year always means a look back over what the past 12 months have offered. And a seemingly impossible task for any reviewer. It’s been a somewhat fraught year for reviewers also, particularly in small communities like Wales.
And in the spirit of reflection, it’s important to note perhaps, that critics can- and do- form a part of the creative community. They want to support that community, see it prosper and grow and engage and work with the artists they write about. Critics like most of the artists they write about are also, unfortunately, juggling other jobs, lives and have a finite resource of time and money.
To that end, this list is in no way definitive, even representative of the talent and work on show in English-language Welsh theatre in the last 12 months. It’s a slice, a celebration and reflection of one critic’s experience. They aren’t ranked either – they’re alphabetical!
Here are the 10 pieces that struck a chord, often in very different ways over the course of a year.
Adrift – George Infini (Clock Tower Theatre Company)
Some things do exactly what they say on the tin. Adrift by George Infini is just that: a damn funny, perfectly formed Edinburgh Fringe piece. Three guys, a raft, some sexual tension and a peg. What more do you need for 45 minutes of hilarity? And given that true laugh until you hurt comedy is hard to nail down, much less in this stripped back concise format, Infini crafted a near perfect slice of fringe comedy.
Blue – Rebecca Hammond/Rhys Warrington (Chippy Lane Productions)
We often forget in our drive to always be doing something ‘innovative’ on stage, to tell stories. That stories are what actually drives theatre. Blue created by Chippy Lane founder Rebecca Hammond and written by Rhys Warrington, is a reminder of the power of well-told stories. With Welsh identity woven through it in every sense – including that storytelling culture – Blue showed what a well-made play could achieve.
Gods and Kings- Paul Whittaker (Four in Four)
The power of some plays is simply the message they are trying to get across. It’s a reminder that we use theatre to communicate what can’t perhaps be said any other way. Or to share what we need to as humans.
Gods and Kings was a theatrically imperfect (what is anyway?) perfect moment of human communication. And isn’t that what theatre is about?
The shared experience of storytelling, the moving urgency with which audiences responded to Paul’s story, is an important reminder of why we make anything, but particularly theatre.
Hedda Gabler – Ibsen/Brian Friel (Sherman Theatre)
Classics are often overlooked for the shiny and the new, but this production of Friel’s previous adaptation showed that while we can and must keep producing new Welsh writing (as above) we must also remember there’s talent in our Welsh theatres to take on the best too.
And anything the big London theatres, or other regional powerhouses can do, the Sherman more than matched with this production. Showcasing Welsh talent on stage and off, this was a masterclass in staging the classics for a contemporary audience. The biggest vote for which was a theatre packed with enraptured school pupils who were lucky to encounter this great work of art – a vital and important element of theatre.
How to be Brave- Sian Owen (Dirty Protest)
For over a decade Dirty Protest have been championing Welsh artists of all kinds. And with them Welsh stories. And How to Be Brave was another brilliant example. A funny, moving and emotive story from Sian Owen, told through a powerhouse performance by Laura Dagleish, it was a simple story of trying to get through the day, told with honesty and a lot of heart.
Lose Yourself- Katherine Chandler (Sherman)
Some writers leave you speechless, and in Lose Yourself Katherine Chandler did exactly that. There was a moment, just moments before the end when the weight of what she had written in Lose Yourself hit you, and it was a devastating but beautiful moment. We need more writers who are given the chance to have that impact.
We need more women able to tell those stories. The shock that Lose Yourself caused some, the debate it ignited in others, is all testament to the ‘importance’ of the story. But also the power of Chandler’s writing. And that along with a beautifully executed piece of theatre makes this one of the new writing highlights of the year.
A Night at the Clink- Matthew Bulgo, Branwen Davies & Tracy Harris
Three writers. Three interconnected stories. All told within the walls of The Clink restaurant – the Cardiff Prison restaurant where prisoners receive training in hospitality and catering. A brilliant marriage of site-specific theatre, a unique audience participation element (more theatre which also involves food please), and some brilliant storytelling.
Honest, moving and entertaining stories, that left me with – pardon the pun – much food for thought. With so many other stories to tell and a format that’s truly unique and effective, hopefully it isn’t the end for this show.
On Bear Ridge- Ed Thomas (NTW/Royal Court)
The ‘Blockbuster’ of Welsh theatre this year, saw Thomas back writing for stage and Rhys Ifans back on stage. This ‘event theatre’ was a brilliantly directed, gloriously designed piece of work. Co-directed by Vicky Featherstone and Ed Thomas, On Bear Ridge was a masterclass of theatre production.
The Story- Tess Berry-Hart (The Other Room)
The interconnected season of plays at The Other Room is to be applauded for its ambition. Perhaps not everything about the whole worked, and not every play worked for every audience. But its existence was in itself an achievement.
Within a season of strong new plays, however, Berry-Hart’s story stood out. Simple in its execution and concept, her writing is filled with important comment on society, alongside engaging storytelling and a strong emotional core.
The LGBTQ representation that is inherent in Berry-Hart’s script remains an important one, and is still often missing from our stages.
Twelve Cabins Twelve Vacancies- Chris Durnell and Angharad Matthews
You don’t expect some pieces to endure in the mind but this one did so. At the time it didn’t perhaps seem like one that would be included on the end of year lists. But I’ve found myself drawn to talking about it again and again over the year.
Perhaps it’s the somewhat geeky element of Durnell’s incorporation of Psycho and the manner in which his narration of the film shot by shot speaks to part of me.
More than that, an act of personal, honest storytelling is always something to be applauded.