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Theatre review: Operation Julie by Theatr na nÓg

20 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Operation Julie: A Rock Musical

Sarah Morgan Jones

Taking my seat in the theatre, a prog rock band is skilfully wigging out on stage behind a gauze, bathed in rich, psychedelic colours with fluting that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jethro Tull set.

The track is actually by Gong and as the audience settles in, we are in no doubt that we are ‘going back, way back in time,’ to a world where coppers were, perhaps, over-zealous and citizens who presented an alternative world view were in for a bumpy ride…

No, not the last few years, but, as the subtitle tells us: ‘Some of these events actually occurred in 1974 and 1977.’

So begins the remarkable story of Operation Julie, the biggest drugs bust in history. The time when rural mid-Wales became the focus of over 800 police officers on account of it being the source of 60% of the world’s LSD – and thanks to idealist chemist Richard Kemp, it was the purist LSD the world had ever seen.

I’d love to change the world…but I don’t know how” by Ten Years After is ringing around my head two days on, and this desire is exactly what Kemp, his partner Christine Bott, and a whole generation of advocates for social change were aiming for.

They believed the way to do it was to change the world’s thought processes, that ‘happiness is a state of mind’ and that we, as humans, where now ‘spending the world’s capital, not living off the interest’ and this is unsustainable.

This prescient view, foreseeing rising temperatures, the widening chasm of inequality and the inherent corruption of those rising to the top, was radical and dangerous to those in charge.

It also offered an opportunity for certain officers of the law to end their careers on a high. As it were.

Fractally blurred

The ensemble cast of actor musicians do not come up for air as they flit between characters, stripping off their clothes to transform from copper to rock star, resume their places on the rock podium after laying out the key events which took place between Carno, Tregaron and Llandewi Brefi.

As the police infiltrate these communities, taking their roles as drug-scoffing hippies rather too seriously, they still, comically, stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, even as the lines between them and their targets become fractally blurred.

This is the second tour of Theatr na nÓg’s magnificent production, the brainchild of writer and director, Geinor Styles and created in partnership with Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Playing to packed houses in its co-production home ground of Aberystwyth in 2022, it is now out in the rest of Wales and beyond, quite honestly ‘larging it’ as a spectacle of modern history. And it really shouldn’t be missed.

Quite apart from the fact that the actors could credibly be members of a long standing and hugely successful band, the resourcefulness of their fast-paced and unerring performances is breathtaking.

Operation Julie, image by Simon Gough

Mind-bending pace

Kieran Bailey cuts an endearing figure as Welsh DS Richie Parry, who regards his ambitious English counterpart DCI Dick Lee, played by Steve Simmonds, with thinly veiled mockery while the earnest and idealistic Kemp and Bott, brought to sympathetic life by Joseph Tweedale and Georgina White, lay out their ‘Good Life’ manifesto of sustainable living and mind alteration in a quest for world peace.

Dan Bottomley as purveyor of good quality highs, Alston ‘Smiles’ Hughes, and Daniel Carter-Hope as both Buzz and Bentley, operate in close but disconnected circles with just the right mix of comedy, panache and authenticity.

Stealing various character limelights and musical highlights, while keeping the narrative going at a mind-bending pace are Caitlin Lavagna and Phylip Harries whose skilful subtleties of performance add bucket loads of humour in all the right places, while Siôn Russell Jones brings a sprinkling of mystery…


Everything about the production itself – beautiful and clever set and costume design by Carl Davies, sound by Mike Beer, lighting by Nick Bache, artful use of video by Lloyd Grayshon and musical supervision by Greg Palmer (with a really great soundtrack) – creates a package that is a joy to consume.

And special mention must go to all the crew (sound, lighting and stage) who, along with the actors, flawlessly transform the stage with a skilled choreography. From start to finish, this production oozes quality.

As it draws to a close and the protagonists must face the consequences of their idealistic but ultimately illegal actions, we are left feeling that their treatment may have been harsh.

Arguably, psychedelically altering the minds of the world – as the project grew so large that this became a possibility – is a questionable goal.

But as Kemp reads his statement (which he didn’t do in court, but was there within his writings), it is hard not to consider that as his foresight was so spot on, maybe his solution was too.

There is just time to catch the final two performances at the Riverfont in Newport, with a matinee today at 2pm and a show this evening at 7.30, before the tour continues:

Carmarthen Lyric: Wednesday 24 April – Saturday 27 April, 7.30 pm with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday.

Theatre Brycheiniog: Wednesday 1 May – Saturday 4 May, 7.30pm with a 2pm matinee on Saturday.

Wyvern, Swindon: Wednesday 9 May – Saturday 11 May, 7.30 pm with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday.

Pontio, Bangor: Wednesday 15 May – Saturday 18 May, 7.30 pm with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday.

Lyceum, Crewe: Wednesday 22 May – Saturday 25 May, 7.30 pm with a 2.30pm matinee on Saturday.

For more details and to book tickets, follow the links here. Do it!

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