Review: Petula is a tender, affecting and utterly bonkers play
This tender, affecting and utterly bonkers play is perhaps the ideal antidote to these challenging times, as it is full of the bright colours and yearning complexities of childhood.
That tenderness is a hallmark of pretty much anything Dafydd James touches and here he enlarges the already big, bold, beating heart of Fabrice Melquiot’s play, adapting and translating it whilst also making of it something trilingual to boot.
This mélange of languages – French, Welsh and English – seemingly allows us to see the original breaching through, even as it has to jockey for position with the other tongues, a case of each trying to compete with, dominate or even subsume the others. In this it reflects the language hybridity of modern Wales and remind us that the languages of the country aren’t just English and Welsh, far from it.
The surreal, oddball play centres on the adventures of Pwdin Evans – played with affecting, wide-eyed openness and innocence by Dewi Wykes – whose world is one completely without anchor. His parents, south Walian Mami and north Walian Dadi (Clêr Stephens and Sion Pritchard ) not only represent a geographical divide but have also separated, leaving Pwdin hurt and wounded as a consequence. Each parent has acquired a new partner who only serves to push things even more out of kilter. Life when all four of them get together for dinner is just glorious, chaotic pantomime which Pwdin can only watch from the sidelines.
The deeply caring Mami’s hooked up with Joe Potatoslouch, played with enormous gusto and energy by Tom Mumford, whose life revolves around throwing javelins and smoking cigarettes. If he can’t do the latter he’ll happily eat a sofa. Meanwhile Dadi’s new consort is the vampiristic Amethyst Crappp (yes, with three p’s, played totally OTT, with two T’s by Rachel Summers) whose cooking skills leave everything to be desired.
Duck a l’orange
There’s a blood-bespattered scene in which Amethyst serves duck a l’orange with a fowl that’s very much still alive which was funny enough to make me laugh so much I started to worry about needing a new ribcage. With all this madness swirling around him it’s little wonder that Pwdin wants to leave the earth, especially when he’s at an age where he has to decide what he has to leave behind in order to grow up, or at least in the world of adult rules.
Pwdin’s main quest is to find his cousin Petula (singer and musician Kizzy Crawford, making a confident acting debut) who’s lost in space somewhere so Joe helps to catapult him out among the stars to look for her. And that’s where this mini space odyssey begins and things get trans-galactically odder. He befriends a talking flea called Gillian Anderson along with American astronaut Neil Armstrong while his earthbound dad finds an outsize telescope in the random aisle in Lidl to keep track of him. Pwdin also visits the Planet of the Dead, populated as it with grandparents and ancestors, reminding us that one of the main themes of Petula is family and its complicated connections.
This is the second time director Mathilde López has teamed up with Daf James and together used the work of Melquiot’s work as both touchstone and lodestone. When they presented Yuri back in 2017 it was a hyper-oxygenating work of extraordinary energy and bounce while this latest collaboration is quieter, more contemplative, pondering the intricacies of family and the necessities of love. There are places where it sags a bit and this coincided on the night I went with the arrival of technical gremlins which threw the captions out of synch but with so much going this didn’t matter too much.
López fair paints the production into being, with a bright palette of costume and film projection, totally in keeping with Melquiot’s ticker tape approach of creating visual and verbal poetry – one bright image following the other like a trail of stars. She fills the floor of the stage with hundreds of balls, so that every movement across it is, in a sense, play and that playfulness is part of what makes the play so buoyant and ultimately uplifting.
Not that there aren’t any shadows: there are anxieties about eating, embodied in Pwdin’s very name, as he is a young man who is very concerned about his weight even as also he wrestles with the fact that little girls turn into women with boobs. His sex education only confusingly introduces the idea of having babies, some of them ‘free range’ as the script amusingly describes one of the options.
The play ends not with a coup de théâtre but with a very tender exchange between Pwdin and Petula, in which they try to map out their possible futures, thus extending the generous warmth of the production so that the audience can carry it with them, out into the star-flecked night.
Petula is a National Theatre Wales, Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and August012 co-production. It runs at the Sherman in Cardiff until March 19th before touring Wales, where it visits Aberystwyth Arts Centre (22nd and 23rd March), Pontio, Bangor on the 25th and 26th before visiting Ffwrnes, Llanelli on the 29th and 30th, the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven on 1st and 2nd April and rounding off the tour in Newport’s Riverfront on 5th April and Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon on the 8th April.
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