Friday, February 16, 2018

REVIEW: The Weir (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Back in the 1970s, the film company Amicus made several portmanteau horror films which told eerie, sometimes light-hearted, but always gruesome tales of misfortune and tragedy. They were like Hammer films, but more lurid and macabre.

Conor McPherson's The Weir - celebrating its 20th anniversary this year - would make a cracking portmanteau horror film, with its four spine-chilling folk tales framed by an overarching story about a bunch of people whiling away an evening in a rural Irish pub. There's even a bonus tale in the form of a melancholy reminiscence of lost love and missed opportunity.

There's a good reason why McPherson won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 1999, because The Weir is a haunting, bittersweet, sometimes unsettling, often heartwarming story which beautifully reflects the laid-back, pastoral way of life in rural Ireland, as well as showing how we all carry with us our own demons and fears, which are often waiting keenly to jump to the surface if we let them.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

REVIEW: National Dance Company Wales: Roots (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

NDC Wales decided to mix things up a bit for its Autumn tour and present a curated evening of four short and snappy dance pieces instead of the traditional three longer pieces. Contemporary dance can be a very hard sell to new audiences, so it's commendable that NDC Wales is trying to broaden its appeal by offering bite-size dances which might appeal to newbies. It's a bit like a box of Quality Street - if you don't like one piece, there'll be another one along soon to tempt your tastes. The trouble with assorted chocolates though, is that for every caramel soft centre, there's a dreaded toffee penny.

Artistic director Caroline Finn wanted Roots to present different styles of dance, to show how contrasting contemporary dance can be, so that established audiences got a little of what they fancied, and newcomers got a crash course in what the art form's all about. This is a welcome idea, as is the choice to have Finn introducing each piece, and then hosting a short Q&A afterwards, because inevitably with contemporary dance, people have questions afterwards, even if it's to say: "What was that all about?"

Saturday, November 25, 2017

REVIEW: Little Wolf (Pontio, Bangor)

The loss of a child is one of the most horrifying and emotionally exhausting events that can happen to anyone, and none more so than the child's parents and family. We've all seen it on the news, when a child is reported missing and the local community joins the emergency services in searching the area, combing the landscape for clues. And then the dreaded press conference where the parents issue an emotional plea for the child to come home, reassuring them that they've done nothing wrong, that mummy won't be angry. Or pleading with an abductor to let the child go, unharmed. It's devastating just to watch such a scenario play out, never mind be directly involved with it.

So you'd expect a play about the loss (and subsequent death) of a child to be packed with raw emotion, to grab you by the heartstrings and seriously mess you up. It's a fundamentally emotional event, invoking anger, frustration, hatred, fear and despair. Indeed, the publicity for Little Wolf - an adaptation by Simon Harris of Henrik Ibsen's 1895 play Little Eyolf - promises a "vital and raw" production, but unfortunately it turns up lacking.

Monday, October 30, 2017

REVIEW: P.A.R.A.D.E. (Pontio, Bangor)

P.A.R.A.D.E. (I'm not altogether sure what it's an acronym of; I suspect nothing in particular) is the impressive result of a collaboration between National Dance Company Wales, Dawns i Bawb, Rubicon Dance, Wales Millennium Centre, Pontio in Bangor, and artistic director Marc Rees, and forms a key part of Wales's R17 celebrations marking a century since the Russian Revolution.

What has the Russian Revolution got to do with the people of Wales, some people might ask. It's a good question, but the truth is that when the workers were going on strike and overthrowing their bosses in Petrograd, they were being watched and admired by the coal miners of South Wales, who were inspired by the fact the working man could triumph over the might of autocracy. Russia's uprising led to Maerdy in the Rhondda being nicknamed Little Moscow due to its people's socialist sympathies, and for producing the forthright trade unionist Arthur Horner, who helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

REVIEW: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

At the heart of Jim Cartwright's play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a touching, sentimental story of a shy northern girl struggling to get heard by those around her, including her brash and selfish mother, who treats her the same way wicked stepmothers treat their Cinderellas. But at over two and a half hours in length, Cartwright struggles to fill the time with enough plot to make it as riveting as it should be.

The play (which opened at the National Theatre in 1992 and was written specifically for Jane Horrocks) was adapted into a film in 1998, and tells the story of a shy girl who can do stunningly accurate impressions of divas such as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf after listening to her beloved late father's LP collection. However, the film was significantly more concise in its plotting. Kate Wasserberg's production of the play packs plenty of wallop when it's needed, but there are also a few too many moments of ponderous water-treading, moments which allow the audience to shift in their seat, hoping something will happen soon.

This is particularly noticeable in Act 1, where too much time is spent building up characters who don't require that much time to be fleshed out. The audience gets what the playwright's trying to do much quicker than he does himself. In particular, LV's harridan mother Mari, a stereotypical northern sexpot straight out of the Lily Savage school of termagent matriarchs. All the hallmarks of such a part are there - the too-tight leopard skin skirts and heels, the flashing knickers, the sharp, foul-mouthed tongue and the total disregard for the feelings and needs of those around her. Nicola Reynolds throws everything she's got into Mari Hoff, perhaps more than she should at times, making her a loud, brash, abusive, unpleasant gorgon who cares more about her drinks cabinet and her sex life than her meek daughter. Cartwright may have written the role broadly, but with every part like this, there has to be a more human side, and unfortunately we get to see far too much of the tart and not nearly enough of the heart.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

INTERVIEW: Actor Catrin Aaron on playing Little Voice at Theatr Clwyd

Imagine a stage show where the late, great Judy Garland tops the bill, and the support acts are Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday. Apart from the tiresome "some of them are dead" problem, you'd pay good money to see that show, wouldn't you?

Well, now you can, because Theatr Clwyd is staging a brand new production of Jim Cartwright's classic The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which was specially written for actor Jane Horrocks back in 1992 for the National Theatre. Most people will remember the Oscar-nominated film from 1998, also starring Horrocks, but Theatr Clwyd's take casts the multi-talented Catrin Aaron as the shy, reclusive LV.

"I've never worked on a musical before," admits Catrin, "although I wouldn't really class Little Voice as a musical. It's more of a comedy drama with music."

Catrin trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and has got background in singing performance, including many educational and Christmas shows, "but this is the first time I've done it on my own," she laughs.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

REVIEW: Uncle Vanya (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

OK, let's get the headline out of the way first - Jamie Ballard is simply extraordinary in (and as) Uncle Vanya. Voted by the Guardian as one of the "ten best Hamlets ever", Ballard is an absolute revelation as a man whose entire life has been dictated to and shaped by other people's, whether it be the death of his sister, an unrequited love, or his supercilious brother-in-law. Vanya is one of life's great losers, and Jamie Ballard not so much plays the part as inhabits it.

One of the biggest problems some people have with theatre is the suspension of belief. When you watch a film or TV drama, you already know subconsciously that none of it is real, and you accept that, because you're watching these people on an oblong flatscreen several feet in front of you, like a window into a universe of fiction. But when you're at the theatre, sitting just feet away from a live action performance, you're being asked to believe that the drama is really happening right in front of you, as in life, and that can be harder for some people to swallow. Sometimes, audiences treat it as a challenge - "Convince me!" they smirk. "Convince me that you're really in that three-walled kitchen and feeling suicidal!"

The magic of live theatre is when the audience is utterly convinced that what they're witnessing is real, when they are duped into accepting the facts of the fiction before them because the talent and experience behind it is just too damn good. Achieving verisimilitude is a constant ambition for theatre makers, and director Tamara Harvey achieves it in spades in Theatr Clwyd's Uncle Vanya.