Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Love, Lies and Taxidermy (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Theatre presented in the round (ie, with the audience encircling the stage, which often has few or no vertical backdrops) is an ingenious way of making those watching a play feel part of the proceedings, or at least closer to them. The "us and them" barrier is removed by having the performance take place just feet (sometimes inches!) away from the audience. You can see the actors' faces clearer, the expressions they make, often even the thoughts running through their minds. It can be a beautifully immersive device to make the experience more memorable to the viewer, and more exhilarating for the performer.

But one drawback of staging in the round is that at some point the performers will have their back to one section of the audience, meaning projection is key to maintaining that shared space relationship. The most common way of tackling this is to have the performers move regularly around the space, changing direction and perspective so as to keep as many plates spinning as possible.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Rambert Autumn 2016 (Venue Cymru, Llandudno)

A Linha Curva

For Rambert's 90th birthday year, the company has put together a typically varied, colourful and challenging repertoire of dances which differ according to which venue you see them in, and for their visit to the North Wales coast the company chose three pieces of suitable contrasts.

First up was Mark Baldwin's Dark Arteries, an occasionally frenetic but always energetic piece accompanied by Tredegar Town Band. Matching contemporary dance with a brass band soundtrack might be seen as unconventional, and this eccentricity is carried through into both the score and the choreography.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Rent (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Lucie Jones as Maureen during the madcap Over the Moon

When rock musical Rent first premiered back in January 1996, it became a runaway phenomenon. It was the Hair for the MTV generation. It showed what life was like for young bohemians living in New York City's East Village. It told the truth without filters. Aside from the fact the show itself was fantastic, Rent's full-on depiction of the seedier side of life made a cultural impact too. In 1996, Rent was a bold and shameless snapshot of the streets. Two decades later, it's more of a period piece, having lost some of its shock value as 21st century society has gradually equalled, then surpassed, what Rent has to offer.

Rent is built on vice and challenging themes. The audience is presented with a menu of sex, sexuality, bad language, HIV and drugs, some of which are too strong for younger viewers (indeed, one boy of about 13 or 14 was taken out of the show by his grandfather during the interval and never returned). In this gender-fluid, crystal meth-drenched, polysexual age, Rent's themes should be less shocking, and maybe they are for more established audiences, but for those just looking for a damn good musical with great songs, it still packs a punch some might not be prepared for.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pilgrims (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

At the end of Pilgrims, the one female character (Rachel) tells the two male characters (Will and Dan) that they are not needed any more. It's symbolic of the journey the character has taken on behalf of her gender throughout the play, which is told in a non-linear way, but still very definitely ends at the end (but with a new beginning).

Because Rachel does not want to be a character in somebody else's story; she wants to tell the story herself. As part of the PhD she hopes to study she is looking at the representation of women in folk tales and ballads, decrying the fact the woman (usually called Nancy) is always left at home, waving a handkerchief as her "brave and adventurous" love sails off into danger and excitement, leaving her alone on the shore. But she secretly wants to go with him and share those adventures, or even have them in his place.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wish List (Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Katherine Soper's Bruntwood Prize-winning Wish List is about "the system" - the system that controls us, the system we are part of, and the system we design for ourselves. It's a remarkable play which reveals its multiple layers the more you think about it, and it's no wonder the Royal Exchange/ Royal Court collaboration has been wowing audiences.

Wish List centres on brother and sister Dean and Tamsin Carmody, who live together in a rundown flat in Milton Keynes struggling to make ends meet. Dean (Joseph Quinn) suffers from an array of OCD and anxiety-related issues - he ritually gels his hair in times of stress, he cannot go outside in the daytime (or the night-time!), he struggles with talking to strangers or using the telephone, or even cooking for himself, because he has to run through a certain routine of tapping surfaces in order to move forward. Dean is a prisoner of his compulsions, but after inexplicably being deemed fit for work by the DWP, he has his benefits cut, and the siblings appeal the decision in an effort to prove that Dean is certainly nowhere close to being able to exist harmoniously with the outside world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Good Clean Heart (Pontio, Bangor)

The youthful energy and colour in Mared Swain's production of A Good Clean Heart is intoxicating. The story focuses on two brothers who were split up at a very young age by social services, who rehomed the youngest, Kevin, in Wales, while the eldest, Jay, stayed in their native London. The two lost touch (Kevin, renamed Hefin, was only a toddler anyway) and it's many years later, when Hefin is all grown up, that the boys reach out to reconnect.

It's Willy Russell's Blood Brothers but with less schmaltz, fewer songs and more relevance. Where Russell's hugely successful and sentimental musical takes class as the divide between the estranged brothers, here playwright Alun Saunders takes race and geography. Hefin is a white middle-class, well-educated and reasonably well-adjusted lad from South Wales who speaks two languages and comes from a stable, loving family who adopted him, whereas Jay is a black man who's had a tough upbringing and has ended up in trouble with the law as a result of falling in with the wrong crowd.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Interview with Phil Williams about Cascade Dance Theatre

This is a version of a feature published on October 10th, 2016 by Arts Scene in Wales 

Phil Williams is passionate about getting art out to the masses. And it's not just about enabling more people to see art forms they might never usually see. Phil believes it is vital to get art into the smaller communities of Wales, the modest towns and villages where touring theatre companies rarely go.

With this in mind, he has set up the Cascade Dance Theatre company, which embarks upon its debut tour of Wales this November, visiting some places that other theatre companies fear (or cannot secure the funding) to tread.

"The aim for this tour is to make it as much of a success as possible, both for us and the smaller venues who are taking us," says Phil, who is Artistic Director of Cascade.

"I hope to make the tour a fixture in Cascade's calendar every Autumn. We're living in difficult times so we have to make this tour a success so we can put in a strong application to the Arts Council for next time. That way we might get more venues involved along the way."

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Kreutzer vs Kreutzer (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

1803: Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Sonata No.9 (aka The Kreutzer Sonata) premieres.
1889: Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata is published, taking inspiration from Beethoven's work.
1923: Leoš Janáček writes String Quartet No.1 (aka Kreutzer Sonata), taking inspiration from Tolstoy's work.
2010: Laura Wade's play Kreutzer vs Kreutzer premieres, taking inspiration from the work of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Janáček.

It's the perfect example of how artists and creatives inspire one another across the barriers of time and language, and how the work of one genius can provoke the best in others (although it seems only people whose names begin with the letter L). Laura Wade's Kreutzer vs Kreutzer - billed as "a play for voices" - is the perfect last lap in an artistic relay race that's been running for over 200 years. She manages to throw the individual works which serve as her inspiration into sharp focus, while also knitting them together into one cohesive and immensely rewarding whole.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Insignificance (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Each act of Insignificance, a play set in one hotel room and featuring four icons of their field, opens with David Bowie's final single before his death, Lazarus. No previous production of Insignificance - which debuted at London's Royal Court in 1982 - can have opened with this music, and so the significance of its use by director Kate Wasserberg is interesting.

Apart from the song being a beautiful, melancholy composition by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Lazarus's lyrics are highly appropriate for the characters in the play: "Look up here, I'm in heaven/ I've got scars that can't be seen/ I've got drama can't be stolen/ Everybody knows me now." The perfect choice by Wasserberg, written and performed by another towering icon in his field, now sadly lost to the world.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016 round-up


Here's a list of the shows I saw and reviewed while at 2016's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, thanks to the Network of Independent Critics.

Royal Vauxhall (Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh Fringe)

What would happen if anarchic radio DJ and TV comedian Kenny Everett, and international rock megastar Freddie Mercury, decided to take the doe-eyed Queen of Hearts Princess Diana out to a gay bar? Well, believe it or not, that did actually happen, and Royal Vauxhall, a new musical from Desmond O'Connor, answers that question in its own unique way.

Although its tongue is very much in its cheek, there is an underlying melancholy to Royal Vauxhall. The unspoken truth shared by the writer and the audience is that we all know these three characters have a tragic end, and there are glimmers of self-awareness, especially in Mercury. Royal Vauxhall is set at the fag end of the 1980s, when the once close friends Mercury and Everett had made up following a fall-out over a tell-all book written by Everett's wife. Diana is feeling trapped in a loveless marriage, and everything is careering headlong toward that fateful November in 1991 when the world lost one of its brightest, most extravagant stars.

Canon Warriors (Paradise in the Vault, Edinburgh Fringe)

When you're a fantasist, it can hurt to live in the real world; and when you're a realist, it can be really quite frustrating to have to cope with the fripperies of fantasy.

This is the set-up for the two characters at the centre of Hannah Greenstreet's charming Canon Warriors, in which we meet puppet-mad Punch, who lives pretty much inside her own head, and pragmatic Fleur, who looks after them both, practically and financially. They love one another very much, and live illegally in a council beach hut in Thanet, eking out a modest existence on what little money Fleur earns as a part-time teaching assistant.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Smother (ZOO Southside, Edinburgh Fringe)

It's not often you see homosexuality explored through hip hop, which makes 201 Dance Company's Smother all the more important. Dance is an art form where you see people of the same sex in unusually intimate situations quite commonly, but that is not necessarily sexual, merely the consequence of the choreography. Smother is about gay people, and so the intimacy becomes charged with a purposefully sexual subtext.

It is the touching story of two men who fall in love, but whose relationship is not perfect, and whose connection is put under strain by one party's abuse of drugs. Chalk dust usually used for grip cleverly doubles up as a certain white powder here, which the user aggressively blows in his boyfriend's face - it's a beautiful, visual way to get the theme across.

5 Guys Chillin' (C Too, Edinburgh Fringe)

I don't usually begin reviews with "I", but in the case of 5 Guys Chillin', I'm going to bend the rules. Because it's virtually impossible to write about the play without referring to your own, deep-seated reaction to it.

5 Guys Chillin' is less of a play and more of an experience. Pieced together by Peter Darney from more than 50 hours of interviews with men found through Grindr and other apps, it is a verbatim drama which pulls absolutely no punches in its depiction of the chem-sex subculture. It is immersion without interaction, for the audience is very definitely there "in the room". The fourth wall has never been built, and the first, second and third walls were demolished before you even stepped foot inside.

It takes place in one flat where a chem-sex party takes place among five gay men. They strip to their pants and indulge in all manner of debauched activities involving sex and drugs, and gradually get wilder, looser and more hedonistic. It's like being at a real-life sex party, as it plays out in real time before you, with real words spoken by real people about the terribly real things they've done.

Pussyfooting (Paradise in the Vault, Edinburgh Fringe)

Built from interviews and workshops with women and transgender people across the UK, Pussyfooting is a "collaged exploration" of how it is to live in a gendered body. And what fantastic fun it is too!

Pussyfooting is a feast of comedy sketches, light-hearted sit-down discussions and heartfelt truth-telling, and it is ridiculously empowering for both men and women. At its core, it asks what it means to be a woman. Does it mean long, flowing hair? Being there when a loved one is crying, and staying until their upset is sated? Is being a woman defined by simply having a vagina, or periods, or breasts?

A Dream of Dying (The Space at Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

We all love a good mystery, and the mystery at the heart of Fake Escape's A Dream of Dying couldn't be more compelling. In 2009, Peter Bergmann washed up on a beach in Ireland. But that was not his real name. He did not live there, and no one ever came to claim him. To this day, he has never been identified, but police pieced together this stranger's final hours by viewing CCTV footage and talking to local residents.

He had bought envelopes that were never posted, given fake addresses to hotels, and dispensed of his worldly belongings in various waste bins dotted across the small seaside town of Sligo. When the body washed ashore, a lengthy investigation began to attempt to identify the stranger.

Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? However, A Dream of Dying does not provide any answers, principally because there are none to give. Bergmann's secrets have never been solved, and so Treasa Nealon's play attempts to imagine what kind of man he was, and what might have led him to this baffling demise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Oh Hello! (Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe)

Charles Hawtrey worked with Will Hay, you know. And Groucho Marx. And he was directed by Alfred Hitchcock (albeit for just 15 seconds). These are career highlights for him, but of course the only thing he's really remembered for is the Carry On films.

Oh Hello! does for Charles Hawtrey what David Benson's Think No Evil of Us did for Kenneth Williams in that it brings to life a personality generally only known for their work, rather than as people. This is a revival of a play first performed by writer Dave Ainsworth many years ago, but which now has Jamie Rees playing the subject, and to greater success.

Rees has a striking resemblance to Hawtrey, and has his impersonation down to perfection. The look, the avian body language, the chuckle in his voice, the camp asides... it's like Rees is channelling the spirit of Hawtrey for the duration of the piece. There's a lot of hard work gone into studying his subject, and it pays off in spades. We're also treated to snatches of Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Jim Dale and even Barbara Windsor.

Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy (Greenside at Nicolson Square, Edinburgh Fringe)

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have been dead for more than 50 years, but time has not diminished either their reputation or their talents, which was why the auditorium was almost packed out for Searchlight Theatre's loving tribute to the greatest comedy double act there ever was.

Laurel and Hardy were in their sixties when they embarked upon a grand tour of the UK in the early 1950s. They'd recently finished filming their last ever movie (the disastrous but overlooked Atoll K aka Utopia), which had not been a pleasurable experience at all, so they were not prepared for the waves of adulation and adoration that greeted them everywhere they went on this tour of the nation's music halls and theatres. Indeed, when they sailed across to Ireland they were greeted by hordes of fans at the water's edge, and the church bells chimed their trademark Cuckoo Song, provoking tears of joy from the ageing boys.

A Regular Little Houdini (Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe)

You'd never guess it, but Harry Houdini loved Newport. He loved the grand Lyceum Theatre there, and chose the South Wales town to kick off his first international tour in 1905. However, the superstar escapologist and magician had a habit of making enemies as well as friends in Newport, ever since the trick he pulled escaping from Newport jail, putting the local constabulary to shame. The police never exactly greeted him back to Newport with open arms after that, but it didn't stop him going.

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams's one-man play takes Houdini's connection with Newport as the inspiration for what is a heartwarming and enthralling tale of childhood heroes, working class hardship and fatal disasters. Llewelyn-Williams plays a young boy called Alun (aged variously between 10 and 14) who idolises Houdini and spends his boyhood trying to learn his hero's tricks, or "amazements" as he insists they should be called.

Darktales (Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Fringe)

Who knew that memorial portraiture was a thing? Well, it was during those notoriously morbid Victorian times, when families would pay photographers to pose their deceased children as if they were alive, and take a keepsake image of them. It is a practice we have difficulty with today, but back in the 19th century, when infant mortality was so much higher, mourning portraits were the obvious way of holding on to loved ones lost. It makes sense, if a somewhat grisly sense seen with our 21st century eyes.

Memorial portraiture is just one of many unpleasant ideas in Tim Arthur's horror story Darktales, which concerns the less-than-subtly-named Alex Crowley, a literature teacher and once celebrated horror author, who invites a former student to his quarters to interview him about his latest novel. His fiction-writing career has been overshadowed by the runaway success 20 years earlier of his book Darktales, a success he has been unable to rekindle since. His new book is to be a sequel, and he asks journalist Jack Langton to record a vlog to help publicise his work.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Partial Nudity (ZOO, Edinburgh Fringe)

Partial Nudity is the inaugural production of the fledgling Fandango theatre company, set up by actors Joe Layton and Kate Franz to fulfil their dream of staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their raison d'etre is to deliver a message that matters, focusing on sexual politics. What better way to do that than to stick one man and one woman in a room together and make them talk?

Darren is a stripper from Bolton looking forward to, but understandably anxious about, his first "full strip". His schtick is the sexy American cop, complete with cap, plastic handcuffs and mirrored shades. He's your stereotypical jack-the-lad, a cock o' the walk who thinks he's a major draw for the ladies simply because they pay good money to ogle his manhood (but let's face it, most women burst into laughter when they see a man's penis).

Nina is a stripper from America who is studying at Manchester University and takes off her clothes in order to pay her student debts. Her schtick is sexy nurse and naughty nun, equipped with fishnets, high heels and leather basque. She is jaded by the stripping industry, seemingly scarred by leering men's assumption that strippers = hookers, and that because they're paying to see most of the goods, they can get the rest for free.

Care Takers (C, Edinburgh Fringe)

Most of the time, when you see a depiction of homophobic bullying in the school environment, it's told either from the child's perspective, or is inclusive of it. But what Billy Cowan's Care Takers does is completely remove the victim and drills down, beneath and behind the scenes, to see what happens when the system gets involved.

Written as part of a research project by Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire, Care Takers is a blisteringly strong script handled with confidence and passion by two heavily invested, sensitive performers. Set entirely within the office of the deputy head of an inner-city school, Care Takers examines the issue of institutionalised homophobia by presenting both sides of a very compelling argument.

Wilde Without the Boy (Assembly Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

On Tuesday, May 18th, 1897, the once celebrated, now disgraced socialite and playwright Oscar Wilde was released from prison after a two-year incarceration for gross indecency. Between January and March that year, Wilde had been permitted by the prison governor to write a letter to his erstwhile lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), in an attempt at both catharsis and rehabilitation.

The fact he was only allowed to write it one page at a time, with each page being taken away on completion, meant Wilde was unable to read his 20-page manuscript as a whole. Neither was he allowed to actually send the letter to its intended recipient, but Wilde did get to take it away with him on his day of release from prison, which is the day Cahoots Theatre Company's Wilde Without the Boy takes place.

Meet Fred (Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe)

It used to be a trailblazing, groundbreaking novelty to break the fourth wall in theatre, to acknowledge the fact there was an audience watching you and include them in the performance. But with Meet Fred, there is no fourth wall to break in the first place. What you see is presented as real, a show within a show.

Hijinx Theatre specialises in working with actors who have learning disabilities, training them to work at a professional level of performance. Their latest show, Meet Fred, uses Japanese Bunraku, invented more than 300 years ago, to bring to life Fred, a three-man puppet who firstly has to come to terms with the fact he is a puppet, and then cope with having three strange men stand behind him to move his limbs around, and give him voice. It's best not to think about how this works for too long as it makes your brain hurt a little. The idea of a self-aware puppet is not new, but the story Hijinx tells is most probably unique.

Nosferatu's Shadow (Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe)

Is it not better to be remembered for just one thing rather than nothing at all? Max Schreck doesn't think so. He'd rather be completely forgotten, lost in the mists of time, than be remembered for the one role which has endured almost an entire century.

Schreck will forever be associated with his most indelible role, that of Count Orlok in the 1922 German Expressionist silent horror, Nosferatu. Even if you've never seen the film (and let's face it, you have to have a pretty specialist interest to sit and watch a 90-minute silent black and white movie these days), you'll know the part Schreck played from the clips, stills and spoofs that pepper popular culture. The bald, pointy-eared, spike-toothed, claw-fingered ghoulish silhouette which climbs a flight of stairs and terrified generations to come.

But Max Schreck was more, much more than a silver screen vampire. He was a stage actor of phenomenal renown in Germany, a performer of admirable and admired talent who conquered comedy and tragedy, romance and horror, cabaret and recital. He worked with Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt, and despite his forbidding countenance, was actually a very cultured, thoughtful and nature-loving individual who preferred the forest to the city and was devoted to his beloved wife of 26 years.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dark North & Hungry Jane (The Space on Niddry Street, Edinburgh Fringe)

David Skeele, the writer and director of these two tales of horror all the way from Pennsylvania, says that when fright is done right, it should include "brilliant special effects, psychological suspense and believable performance by actors".

Which is why it's all the more disappointing that Slippery Rock's presentation of Hungry Jane and Dark North fails in much of this. Neither tale is scary, merely spooky. Neither tale has "brilliant special effects" - a rocking chair which rocks itself would be unsettling if the motor and wire which powered it were not so visible. And although there's undeniable mystery in the stories presented, there is very little suspense generated in what is a sadly under-powered production.

Two Kittens and a Kid (The Space on the Mile, Edinburgh Fringe)

Story is all. You can have all the flash-bang-wallop of a West End jukebox musical, or the lavish art design and pomp of a grand opera, but without an engaging story to tell, you have nothing.

And boy, does Christopher Wilson's intensely personal and moving Two Kittens and a Kid have a humdinger of a story, made all the more affecting because it is absolutely true. These things happened to him, and their legacy goes on. How Wilson manages to perform this show day in, day out is astounding. Two Kittens and a Kid (A Gay Man Raising His Inner Diva) is obviously his catharsis, and he scoops up the audience on a truly rollercoaster ride along the way.

So what is this story about? It would be unfair to give too much away, as it is the way the audience is drawn into Wilson's experiences that makes the ending all the more powerful. It's best not to know in advance how this show ends, as it would most definitely lose its strength, but it wouldn't be worth seeing (or writing a show about) if there weren't heartache and tragedy.

F*cking Men (Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Fringe)

Joe DiPietro's F*cking Men is basically a sexually transmitted disease in theatrical form. Based upon Arthur Schnitzler's controversial 1897 play Le Ronde, it shows a cavalcade of ten gay male characters getting off with one another in turn, with one partner leading us to the next vignette, and so on. It's an x-rated game of Pass the Parcel.

Whereas Schnitzler's original was purely heterosexual (the whore and the soldier, the soldier and the parlour maid, the parlour maid and the gentleman etc), the idea of a relay race of sexual encounters lends itself much more easily to the gay scene in the 21st century, because that's how it broadly works. There is generally more promiscuity on the gay scene, with men picking up partners for one night stands as easily as swiping right or left on an app, or provocatively rearranging a towel in the sauna.

The original 2015 production of F*cking Men at the King's Head Theatre in London featured a larger cast of performers than this Edinburgh transfer, which sees three actors take on multiple roles throughout the 60 minutes. The play only tells tales where there are two to tango, so having three actors just about copes with the flow, but it's interesting to see how easily the performers flip from one character to their next, and how director Mark Barford has adapted original helmsman Geoffrey Hyland's dynamics.

Callisto: A Queer Epic (The Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Fringe)

There's one scene in Callisto: A Queer Epic which works so well, and is so funny and enjoyable to watch, that it makes the bits that don't work stick out more. Three actors are filming a porno about a straight couple who engage their wannabe nanny to try and spice up their sex life. But while the female actors are ready and willing to go, the male actor is more interested in contextualising the film's spurious narrative, wondering if the couple's imaginary children are safely tucked up in bed so they won't accidentally happen across this scene of carnality in the living room.

The children are not real, but in the actor's head, he needs to know it all makes sense. It makes for genuinely funny material, and it's written and performed so beautifully that it casts something of a shadow over the rest of the "epic".

Friday, August 12, 2016

Deal with the Dragon (C Nova, Edinburgh Fringe)

We all have a dragon. We may not all deal with the dragon, but there's always one there, over our shoulder, behind our back, peering at us around corners and from under beds. And while it may be left exquisitely open as to quite what the dragon represents in San Franciscan Kevin Rolston's rollicking tour de force, it's obvious that it can be a force for evil just as much as good.

Western culture tends to see the dragon as a ferocious symbol of power, grandeur and trickery, but in Eastern culture the dragon is seen as lucky, benevolent and wise. Rolston's interpretation of the dragon is all of these things wrapped into one, monstrous character called Brenn, an arts critic from the Black Forest who swoops into people's lives when they are feeling vulnerable or when they are at a crossroads. He acts as artistic patron to painter Hunter, who is on the cusp of submitting a piece of work to a museum for a prestigious showcase. He is one of two contesting finalists, along with the deliciously camp Gandy Schwartz.

A Boy Named Sue (C Nova, Edinburgh Fringe)

"The essence of a real man is that he falls in love with a woman."

This is the opinion of one of the three characters in Bertie Darrell's heartfelt triple-monologue A Boy Named Sue, which began life as part of the young writers' programme at the Bristol Old Vic and makes its debut at Edinburgh.

The maxim by which emerging theatre company Sue Productions goes is to "represent the under-represented", and while that may not necessarily be the case as far as the LGBT community as a whole goes, within that bracket they've certainly succeeded.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Preview of Llawn04 Llandudno Arts Weekend

Llandudno Art Festival – Llawn04 – returns this September, a whole weekend of free events along the promenade and across various venues and spaces in the North Wales seaside resort.

There'll be performance, street games, music, robot-making, dance, visual art, film and the unexpected, all inspired by this year's theme of Hide/ Seek.

It opens with a few treats on Friday, September 23rd and then there's a weekend full of events on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th. Days and exact timings will be announced in August, but for now you can browse all the activity that will be coming and start to plan what you'd like to see.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Whatever Happened to LaLa Shockette? (Pontio, Bangor)

Way back in 1979, when punk and disco were the musical movements dominating nightclubs and Top of the Pops, a small nightspot called the Blitz Club opened up in London's Covent Garden. It's well known how instrumental the Blitz was in shaping the direction British music took over the following few years, inventing the subculture that became known as New Romanticism.

It's also well documented that a pre-fame Boy George worked on the coat-check stand at the Blitz, but nobody ever wonders who took his job on when he handed in his notice and swanned off to seek stardom and fame with Culture Club. Well, Whatever Happened to LaLa Shockette answers that question, as well as many other questions you'd never thought of asking, and would be surprised by the answers to.

It's a cabaret extravaganza dreamed up by Welsh actress and singer Lowri-Ann Richards, who as well as being recognisable from various Welsh language soaps such as Pobol y Cwm and Rownd a Rownd, was also at the very epicentre of the New Romantic explosion more than 35 years ago. You probably won't have heard of her - as Lowri-Ann or her pop alter ego LaLa Shockette - but she was most definitely there, as her slideshow of celebrity snaps attests.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Preview: Wales at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016

This feature was first published by Arts Scene in Wales on July 13th, 2016

Wales is sending a formidable army of unique and talented productions to this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, ranging from Roald Dahl to Carry On, from children's theatre to stand-up.

There are over 30 shows on the Fringe billing from Wales-based companies and artists, so let's take a whistlestop tour through the list of theatre, comedy and music to see what Cymru is offering Alba this August.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Block (Pontio, Bangor)

Pic: Dan Tucker

There's something uniquely exhilarating about seeing spectacle through a child's eyes. Children are transparent, they don't hide their thoughts and feelings. So when they think something's good, you know about it. The audience for Block at Pontio on Sunday afternoon was almost entirely made up of young families, with most of the onlookers under the age of 10. And the wonder, excitement and fun these children were having watching this mix of dance and circus was electric.

Block is a collaboration between Wales's own circus performance outfit NoFit State and Leamington Spa-based dance theatre company Motionhouse, and fuses the aesthetics and disciplines of both into one thrilling 45-minute show.

It's designed to be performed in the open air, taking as its theme the city and its changing face. Using 20 oversized prop blocks, the seven performers portray various inner city and urban scenarios which connect with the human experience. The city can be many things: threatening, daunting, dangerous, exciting, celebratory, busy, empty. You name it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

To Dream Again (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Dorian Simpson and Hannah Hutch as Robin and Sophie

At the end of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the characters of Helena and Demetrius are very much in love, despite the trials and tribulations getting to that point. One of the principal agents in the couple's game of 'he-loves-me/ he-loves-me-not' is Puck's magical love potion, which forces one to love another pretty much against their will or comprehension. It is a spell; the only natural thing about it is the love-in-idleness bloom from which it comes.

So Shakespeare left the audience with a dilemma: if the only reason Demetrius loved Helena was because of a love spell cast upon him, would that love last? Was it true love? Was it even fair for them to be together if one was blinded from the truth?

This is where Toby Hulse picks up the quill in To Dream Again, a co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, to where the play will transfer in March 2017. The play is aimed at children aged seven and up, and imagines the consequences of Demetrius and Helena's enforced romance. Set in the modern day, it plays out through the eyes of nine-year-old Sophie, who has a growing awareness of her parents' disintegrating marriage. Her parents are modern equivalents of Shakespeare's lovers, and it seems that the love they had when they first met has well and truly withered on the vine.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Alternative Routes 2016 (The Dance House, Cardiff)

Giving young dancers an opportunity to create choreography of their own, National Dance Company Wales's Alternative Routes strand is an important platform to nurture and encourage blossoming talent. And it's interesting to see how the training these young dancers have soaked up by performing the choreography of more experienced artists informs their own latent talent.

AltRoutes2016 comprised three new works by NDC Wales's company dancers, plus one work by a former Company dancer and another by current Artistic Director Caroline Finn. It made for a pot-pourri of styles in what was a delightful presentation of where NDC Wales is in 2016, and the fact the new work is forged in collaboration with design students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama made it all the more refreshing.

Before I Leave (Sherman Cymru, Cardiff)

Melanie Walters and Martin Marquez as Dyanne and Joe

Each May for the last decade Wales has held the Gwanwyn Festival, celebrating creativity in older age, which provides an opportunity for older people to get involved in different forms of the arts, whether visual, musical or literary. Last week I saw one of the many productions that have formed part of 2016's festival, Karin Diamond's play Belonging from the Re Live organisation, and this new production from National Theatre of Wales tackles the same topic of dementia.

But where Belonging was a small, intimate, thoughtful study of the emotional effects dementia can have on those living with the disease, Patrick Jones's Before I Leave takes a bigger, brighter, more bombastic approach. That's not say it's without its emotional side, but by taking the magic of music as its door into the subject, the production automatically adopts a brasher, more West End feel.

Dance Roads 2016 (Chapter, Cardiff)

Knots, performed by Lucie Augeai and David Gernez

The Dance Roads network has been touring contemporary work from establishing choreographers around Europe for a few years now (the network itself was set up in 1990). The aim of the tour is to allow artists from partner countries to be seen by new audiences in European countries that they might not normally visit, and consequently dance fans from these countries get the opportunity to see work from different cultures.

This year's three-week tour brought together choreographers from Wales, Italy, France, Holland and Romania, and the Dance Roads festival was presented to audiences in Bordeaux, Turin, Bucharest and Arnhem before finishing up at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. Audiences reacted in different ways to different works as the tour progressed, but one thing was common - the artists' passion for innovative work.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Interview with Gwyn Emberton on his career and Dance Roads 2016

This is a version of a feature first published by Arts Scene in Wales and Media Wales in June 2016

Gwyn Emberton has issued a call to arms to the Welsh arts community.

‘Wales needs its own conservatoire for dance, I feel very strongly about that,’ says the Powys-born dancer/ choreographer. ‘We need something like the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, but for dance; that’s really lacking in Wales.’

Gwyn bangs the drum for the blossoming contemporary dance scene in Wales. Just a few years ago there were very few, if any, university courses for budding dancers in Wales. This autumn there will be three or four, including a professional vocational course led by Matthew Gough at Cardiff’s Atrium.

Belonging/ Perthyn (Galeri, Caernarfon)

The ultimate power of theatre - as with any art form - is to provoke an emotional response. Whether it makes the audience laugh or cry, outraged or embarrassed, theatre should provoke a reaction. Nobody should leave the auditorium thinking about what to have for tomorrow night's dinner. Live theatre should leave a mark.

In the case of playwright Karin Diamond's Belonging/ Perthyn, most people left the theatre in tears, because this is one very powerful, and beautifully told, play. Five years in the making, Belonging is the brainchild of the Cardiff-based Re-Live project, which works with communities to share stories and transform them into live theatrical experiences. Diamond was inspired to write a play about the ups and downs, the truths and myths, of living with dementia in 21st century Wales after working with a Japanese theatre-maker who specialises in promoting a greater understanding of the condition through performance.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Preview: Alternative Routes 2016 (National Dance Company Wales)

Every year the next generation of young Welsh choreographers and designers are given an invaluable helping hand in their journey to becoming tomorrow’s innovators.

The annual Alternative Routes platform from National Dance Company Wales and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is an important and admired for young dancers who have an eye on their own choreographic futures. It’s been going for more than a decade, and has helped dancers and choreographers at NDCWales develop, explore and improve their artistic ideas, together with design students from the RWCMD.

For an entire month these stars in the making work together on forming new work which is then presented to the public as part of a full evening of dance at NDCWales’s home at the Dance House, part of the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Think No Evil of Us (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

'Another day yawns ahead of me. All that is in my mind now is the way to commit suicide: it has got to be efficient and it has got to be in a place where no one is inconvenienced. Never known a period when I felt so utterly lonely.' - Kenneth Williams Diaries, August 30th, 1987

David Benson's semi-autobiographical one-man show about Carry On legend Kenneth Williams was first performed to great success at 1996's Edinburgh Fringe, after which it transferred to the West End and then toured the country. Benson revived the show for its tenth anniversary, and has done so again for its twentieth.

There's no denying Kenneth Williams was a strange man. But that's not intended as a slight, because in this case, strange means peculiar, odd, unusual. Unique. And that uniqueness means it's very difficult for anybody to fully capture Williams's indelible presence and character. Many have tried, including Olivier Award nominee Adam Godley and the crown prince of celebrity impersonators, Michael Sheen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The James Plays (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Who needs William Shakespeare or George R R Martin when we've got Rona Munro? By focusing on the lives of three lesser-known Scottish kings, Munro has tapped into the current zeitgeist for sword and sorcery, blood and guts, and heart-in-mouth political skulduggery made popular by Game of Thrones.

It's easy to compare The James Plays with Martin's world-conquering book and TV series (something the publicity does with glee), but the fact is, the stories told in these plays are scarier and more thrilling because it's all true. It actually happened. And like so many periods in British history, it's much more interesting than fiction.

Munro has chosen not to write biographies of these three men, but rather zoom in on a particular aspect or period in their life stories, and dramatise and expand upon it to astounding effect. The first play, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, is probably the most satisfying of the trilogy, telling the story of how James I went from being a boy prisoner of the English King Henry V, to crowned King of Scots. James learnt a lot from his upbringing in the English court, and wished to use this knowledge and education to reform Scotland. His ideas for reformed governance and taxation were modeled on what he'd seen working in England, but it took some convincing of the Scottish clansmen and lairds to adopt these new systems. Dictating that collected rents and taxes should pass to the royal household rather than the landowners was a highly controversial move, and made James few friends. His attempts to broker peace between the warring landowners was doomed from the start, but at least this idealist king tried, purely through a devotion to his homeland.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cyrano de Bergerac (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Anybody who nose anything about Cyrano de Bergerac nose that the legendary bon viveur, poet and swordsman had a particularly protuberant proboscis. But woe betide anybody who happens to refer to this aspect of Cyrano's physiognomy, because he's especially sensitive on the subject.

There's a great scene when a visiting Norman baron continually interrupts one of Cyrano's lengthy dictums by forcing the word nose, or derivatives thereof, into the speech. Traditionally, Cyrano would slice this man in half with his rapier without a second thought, but this Norman baron so happens to be the apple of the eye of Cyrano's beautiful cousin Roxane, and so he has to keep that blade sheathed.

Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is a play purely about love, both proclaimed and unrequited. It is presented here by Theatr Clwyd as a farce, as well as a comedy, as well as a tragedy. It has its tongue firmly in its cheek, and Phillip Breen's production leans heavily on the humour, but this wayward lack of stylistic focus sometimes works against it. When it's funny, it does its job well, and the cast are obviously having a whale of a time. But when the play calls upon the audience to take these characters seriously, that earlier lack of sincerity can make it harder to engender genuine empathy. These people are amusing buffoons and histrionic cyphers, although despite this, there were still a few teary eyes in the house when the lights went up.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ceirw: A Savage Hart (Pontio, Bangor)

The ceaseless battle between Mankind and Mother Nature lies at the heart of the latest production from South Wales-based circus-makers Citrus Arts. But although the team from Citrus has been successfully creating circus-based shows since 2009, this time around they decided to build upon what they do so well by mixing circus with dance, theatre and an arresting aesthetic.

Ceirw: A Savage Hart is the result of years of research and development led by Bridie Doyle-Roberts and her husband James, and is directly inspired by the escapades of the Johnes family of Mid Wales, who owned the Hafod Estate during the 18th century. During research, the family's stories have been conflated into one representative figure, a cruel nobleman who becomes obsessed with his dominance over nature, symbolised by his tireless hunting of wild animals in the grounds of his estate, mounting their heads on the wall of his grand house.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Jumpy (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Philip Wright and Sara Stewart as Mark and Hilary

First staged at the Royal Court in London in 2011, Jumpy is a briskly modern comedy-drama which manages to address issues head-on without being preachy or patronising. April De Angelis's script is unapologetically funny - truly, laugh-out-loud hilarious - but through it all there's a vein of serious intent, which is to explore what it's like to be a middle-aged mother in the 21st century.

Hilary is 50 years old, married to the laconic Mark, has a stroppy 15-year-old daughter called Tilly, and is in a job teetering on redundancy. She has a best friend called Frances who has quite a different outlook on life to her, but nevertheless they complement one another. Jumpy is told from Hillary's point of view, so while there are other characters with issues and problems, and opinions and disasters, it's all seen through Hilary's lens. This means Sara Stewart is on stage for almost every second of the play.

Monday, March 14, 2016

There is a Place (Pontio, Bangor)

It seems odd that a show created to celebrate the opening of Bangor's Pontio arts complex should premiere more than four months after it actually opened. But then, Pontio isn't known for its punctuality - the £49m venue finally threw open its doors to the public in October 2015, 12 months later than first planned.

But better late than never, and the same goes for There is a Place, the brainchild of NoFit State Circus's artistic director Firenza Guidi, who has put together a truly mesmerising and magical show which brings together the Bangor community by including local schoolchildren and young performers on the bill.

The art of circus is a growing sector in the arts community, and it is NoFit State's intention to develop a regional base for circus skills at Pontio. Indeed, much of Pontio's inaugural programme has been circus-based, such as Ockham's Razor's Tipping Point and Citrus Arts' forthcoming A Savage Hart.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rambert Spring 2016 (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Frames. Pic: Tristram Kenton

It's a question choreographers must be asked all too often: does an audience need to be aware of the inspiration for a piece of work in order for them to understand it, or get the most out of it? Can an observer come in to a dance piece completely cold and pick up what it's about just from watching it?

Kim Brandstrup, choreographer of Transfigured Night, believes firmly that "there is nothing you need to know in advance" of seeing this piece. He says that the audience is "watching people, human beings who will take you on a journey".

I disagree. If you reduce what dance is to merely human beings moving about, albeit in a beautiful way, then what you're essentially left with is legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham's pioneering yet challenging philosophy of discarding narrative and intent, and simply dancing for dancing's sake. Cunningham may have meant it was the performer who dances without intent, but without understanding of a choreographer's intent, surely the audience is being placed in that same unenlightened position.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Iphigenia in Splott (Galeri, Caernarfon)

Let's get it out of the way first: Sophie Melville is remarkable in this play. It's a one-act, one-woman monologue which has a blistering story to tell, with twists and turns, shocks and surprises, joy and tragedy, just like your average episode of EastEnders.

But Melville doesn't just perform the monologue; she doesn't merely act out the role of Effie. Melville is Effie, she becomes her. With so much theatre, and particularly monologues, you can sense the performers acting. It's a largely unavoidable characteristic of theatre, the shared conceit between performer and audience that this is all artifice, it's pretend, make-believe. "We've paid good money to come and watch you mess about on stage for two hours."

But not when you watch Iphigenia in Splott. Because the performance is so magnetic, and the writing so truthful, that you're sucked into the fiction yourself, helped enormously by Effie's direct address to the audience at the start of the piece. It includes you, accuses you, and involves you. I was there with Effie in the Great Western pub, I was there with her in the bedroom with Lee, and I was certainly there with her in the ambulance. Boy, was I there!