Review: Tylwyth uses nostalgia to say something new
We live in an age obsessed by nostalgia, seemingly a culture peering backwards as much as embracing an uncertain, even terrifying, future. It’s evident in most of Hollywood’s recent blockbuster output with their reboots, re-duxes and re-imaginings, as well as in publishing with Margaret Atwood, among others, revisiting old literary haunts, while terrestrial television’s biggest hit in recent months was the return of Gavin & Stacey to BBC One. Perhaps it was inevitable that theatre would follow suit eventually.
Tylwyth is the sequel to Daf James’ scintillating 2010 play, Llwyth. Like the original, it’s directed by Arwel Gruffydd and co-produced by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and Sherman Theatre. Llwyth was an epoch-defining moment in Welsh drama – the story of four gay men navigating Cardiff’s nightlife to the contemporised rhythms of Aneurin’s ancient poem Y Gododdin, it was a shot of adrenaline through the veins of theatr Cymraeg.
It’s odd to think it now, but this offbeat story of (largely) platonic love among a small tribe of friends was breathtakingly bold a decade ago. Daf James acknowledges this in his programme notes, noting that it hit our stages at a time when gay marriage was yet to be legalised and the play’s themes of sex and relationships were still relatively taboo; Llwyth’s very creation, the writer recalls, “felt dangerous.” The extraordinary response from audiences was revelatory at the time, Llwyth a surprise hit that would go on to further success at Edinburgh, London and even Taiwan.
Yet, seemingly in a blink of an eye, ten years have passed and, thankfully, the themes of Llwyth are more accepted now. Indeed, Tylwyth opens with self-obsessed party animal Aneurin (Simon Watts) now settled with a loving partner Dan (Martin Thomas) who hails from the north of Wales. “I want a God tonight, not a Gog,” Aneurin laments when the pair first meet on Grindr. Externally, Aneurin has matured, to the point that he and Dan have adopted two children – a concept that would have been virtually unheard of in 2010. But internally, he wrestles with his own shortcomings as a father – all the worse when Dan is serenely paternal – as well as with his inner demons and the nagging sense that life isn’t what he had pictured for himself.
At least Aneurin still has the support – liberally barbed with adoring scorn – of his old circle of friends – Dada, Rhys and Gareth. In line with the fanboy-bingo ethic of movie sequels, audiences who remember the original will not be disappointed – the gang’s all here! – and yet James and Gruffydd eschew complacency, steering our heroes into darker, more mature territory. Whereas Gavin & Stacey’s Christmas return was, dramatically and comedically, a lazy excuse to simply spend time with some old friends, Tylwyth feels like a new journey with startling narrative arcs. Life has changed for these men, and thank goodness for that.
Simon Watts imbues Aneurin with a combination of fatigued ennui and redundant energy; a hangdog on heat, yearning for the life he has but also the life he’s lost. James’ script explores male depression in a way that is nuanced. Aneurin is a man with whom we can empathise but also sometimes loathe, a villain and a victim.
In the role of Dada – the father of the group – Danny Grehan returns on crowd-pleasing form. He’s a warm, easy presence among the pent-up sexual and narcotic-driven frustrations of the others. The audience almost tittered with excitement when the prospect of the burly Grehan reprising his turn as a drag queen version of Margaret Williams became real. And yet, this time in Tylwyth we see more of Dada’s character beyond the comic avuncularity. There are more notes to his character now, as one would expect after ten years.
The return of Gavin, still in his teens in Llwyth, shifts the play’s tone from one of self-reflection and into a Dante-esque tragedy. Aled ap Steffan balances the naivety and street-smarts which has condemned the young man to a life of coerced abuse. Soon, all our heroes find themselves at crossroads.
Last time out, the characters were fighting for an identity as Welsh-speaking gay men – now they are fighting for an adult identity that will have repercussions on all those around them. The story is about saving one’s tylwyth – one’s family, in all its forms.
Tom Rogers’ stunning carousel set turns domestic bliss into a literal whirl of dark debauchery, while Daf James’ music and Sam Jones’ sound perfectly capture a regretful Saturday night in town, albeit one with Arglwydd, Dyma Fi thrown in. The joyousness of Llwyth still remains, especially through its music.
Tylwyth, naturally, can never recapture the giddy shock of its predecessor – time has moved on too far – but Daf James and the company have created characters that have grown up with the audience, with more interesting things to say and different battles to fight. He and Arwel Gruffydd have achieved that rare thing: of using nostalgia to say something new.
Tylwyth is co-produced by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and Sherman Theatre.
The play is at Sherman Theatre from 10th March to 13th March 2020, then on tour to Galeri Caernarfon, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Ffwrnes in Llanelli, Hafren in Newtown, Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan, Pontio in Bangor and ending at Theatr Clwyd on 4th April 2020.
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