Shed Man

Shed Man
By Kevin Jones
Directed by Siobhan Lynn Brennan
Assistant Directed by Umalkyhar Mohamed
Produced by Steve Bennett
Assistant Produced by Lauren Lloyd
Designed by Cory Shipp
Sound Designed by Josh Bowles
Lighting Designed by Louise Swindell
Shed Man is a play where a man builds a shed live on stage.
That’s it, what more do you need? How often do you get to see a shed built live on stage?
Ok, so there’s a bit more to it. A lot more in fact, Kevin Jones weaves a funny, moving and yes, surreal narrative around a hot Bank Holiday Monday of Shed building for Brian. The play hits on themes of questioning where you are in life, wondering if life has passed you by, wanting to hide from life- and the things we hide in life. It’s a deft, intelligent piece of writing that poses a real challenge that the whole team rise to admirably.
Benedict Hurley- image Jonathan Dunn

Benedict Hurley as Brian anchors the production impressively. He gives a considered and intelligent performance in a role that walks a difficult line- in the wrong hands it runs the odd mix of being too understated and too big. Hurley has a real intelligence for this and balances it admirably. He’s also genuinely funny, while being utterly believable as the frustrated man who simply wants to build a shed. When things start to unravel, Hurley shows a real control and understanding of the character that builds those elements subtly, as well as the ‘twist’ to the action for the audience, keeping the more surreal elements again, within his control in the performance. Speaking of the surreal, Joe Burke’s Mr Tatum embraces the surreal, and outright oddball with aplomb. His energetic, quirky performance channels all that you would want from this strange man. It’s a brilliant comedic performance, that never looks like he’s playing it for laughs, which of course makes him all the more amusing. But there’s an odd dark, edge to Tatum, which Burke brings out with ease. We’re never quite at ease with Tatum on stage, and despite his charming demeanour Burke makes sure that’s the case. 
Siw Hughes is a delight to watch as Pat. She tears into the garden with the energy of- well of Welsh Mother after her son frankly- but there is a clever pacing to her humour. She is larger than life yes, but there’s a subtle control with which she plays off the other actors and the audience. Yes, Pat is larger than life, but Hughes finds the nuance in the character. There’s a really interesting balance being played between the woman who is driving her son mad on a hot Bank Holiday, and the woman who lost her husband a year ago. It may seem on the surface an unsympathetic portrait of Pat, but actually there’s a lot to navigate in her character, which Hughes does admirably. Also handled with nuance is Emma, played by Chrissie Neale. As Brian’s wife, she has regrettably less to do than the other characters, instead bookending the piece.  Neale navigates a challenge here- of being seen briefly then spoken about for the rest of the play and reappearing- with finesse. She brings a real sweetness to Emma- particularly in the final scene, that gives the whole piece a real heart.
Benedict Hurley- image Jonathan Dunn
The design, by Cory Shipp is a real highlight. An almost Stepford-esque lawn and Shed (in progress), works beautifully. In the studio space at the Sherman the shock of green law, bright white fence and eventual shed, conjure instantly the hot summer Bank Holiday. The gnome and kids’ toy detail add a nice edge of real-yet-strange. And the shed. Let’s not neglect the shed. In all seriousness any design that manages to find, and incorporate a shed that can be built over the course of an hour is a feat of design, and planning. Sheds aside the tiny snap-shot garden design instantly transports the audience and is a real asset to the production.
Jones’ writing covers a lot of ground through the building of a shed. And while metaphoric and surreal, is also beautifully honest, through Brian’s Bank Holiday meltdown. The reflection on frustration with life, envy, questioning identity and on top of that family navigation and grief is a lot to take on (especially while building a shed). But Jones does it without making any of the points heavy handed. It’s a slow burn reflection on personal frustration with life, of reaching a point and wondering how you go there. And some really intelligent and honest commentary on the pressures on male mental health- especially those from Working Class backgrounds where such things weren’t discussed (Mum’s chest pains, yes, Brian’s mental health no). The exploration of Brian’s relationship with his boss, and his frustrations with his career are as painfully honest, as the depiction of how much he loves his wife is sweet and heart-warming. And all of it adds up to a fascinating angle on exploring these, all mixed up in a package that makes the audience work for it just enough.
Benedict Hurley- image Jonathan Dunn

The minor quibbles with the writing would be that some of all that Jones crams in doesn’t quite get chance to breathe. The comments on Brian’s Father are some of the most brutally honest and frankly cutting moments of the play, and a little more, even if just peppered across the piece would strengthen these moments that are there, but seemingly gone too quickly. Similarly, Emma’s role in the play hits on a minor quibble with Kevin Jones’ otherwise brilliant writing- that Emma, and to some extent Brian aren’t given as much space as they need to offer a fully satisfying arc. In the case of Emma, it’s a frustration with her brevity of involvement, or moreover a little more involvement in the last scene. Similarly, Brian’s moment of revelation felt like it needed a little more- perhaps reflection, perhaps just a moment to breathe in both the writing and direction. Overall, perhaps another 10-15 minutes of the play’s succinct 60-minute running time, would have given more of a slow burn, and high level unravelling to Brian’s Bank Holiday revelations. And a little more, perhaps in the direction, for room to breathe at the end, would have really allowed the themes to hit home.
Shed Man is a challenging piece to direct, and Siobhan Lynn Brennan does an admirable job. It’s a fine line to walk with surrealist elements just how far to push them, but these and other areas of the play feel like they could have been pushed further to really make it click. At times it felt like the play skipped over moments that should have been dug into, and that valuable moments were slightly lost. It’s a credit to Jones’ writing that these moments are there, and that the play remains strong without. For the direction, pushing a bit harder on those key moments might have pulled it up a gear. It is a challenge and one Brennan rises to well- creating moments of genuine comedy, and genuinely touching moments. But at times it did feel like the odd beat- and indeed the odd moment of true oddness were missed opportunities. That said, Brennan directs a difficult piece admirably. It’s a detailed, complicated piece of writing, and one that isn’t easy on an audience at times, and she has brought out the humour, and humanity in the work, which is to be applauded.
Despite these minor quibbles- and they are quibbles with a play that is wonderfully entertaining to watch, and beautifully thought provoking- would truly have elevated it. In Shed Terms, it’s not quite a Super Shed winning Shed of the year (Yes it’s a thing) However it’s still a solid shed that’s going to last the winter, and give those who use it chance to pause, chance to think, and something really satisfying to enjoy.  
Shedman is at the Sherman Theatre as part of the ‘Get it While it’s Hot’ season. Until 17th November
Epilogue
Oh I’m quite enjoying these, and as this isn’t a democracy, I’m going to carry on.
First order of business, when your Dyslexic brain can’t quite remember the word right and is convinced ‘Mr Tatum’ was the weird goat-fella in Narnia. Turns out that’s Mr Tumus, so you live and learn. Mr Tatum is however that fella from Magic Mike, which is a very different film.
It’s been an odd three weeks, feeling like Kevin Jones is (one of the) voices in my head. How often really do you get to see three plays by the same writer in the same week? And it’s been a joy. Worryingly (I’m not sure for which one of us) Jones and I seem to have a lot of similarities in our lives. And so, it’s been quite the adventure in ‘oh someone else said that/felt that/had that’. But in Shed Man, much like Cardiff Boy I felt voices I knew were being presented, honestly and without pity. I also applaud any writer with the courage to write about difficult family relationships with the honesty and candour Jones manages.
Anyway, I digress. Full disclaimer, I’m a writer as part of Clocktower’s current season, but hopefully the above review is objective enough to indicate that doesn’t colour my judgment. In closing though, I would say, how very very proud I am to be a small part of the Clock Tower ‘family’. The entire team has worked so very hard, and achieved so much, over the past five years, but in the last year in particular. And so, it was an utter honour to see them open a show at the Sherman, to such warm response. And, as the nicest people I have had the pleasure of working with, long may their success continue.
(also obviously see my play with them when it opens. What I’m not above a bit of shameless self promotion)

Cardiff Boy

 

Cardiff boy – by Kevin Jones

Directed by Matthew Holmquist
Cast- Jack Hammett
Kevin Jones jumps straight into the 90s with Cardiff Boy. Forgetting for a moment the pub backdrop created in The Other Room, we’re barely a minute in before 90s tunes are blaring from a tape (yes a tape). Directed with intelligence, and a clear passion from Matthew Holmquist and with writing that balances a particular brand of Cardiff humour with universal themes and important questions. Cardiff Boy is an engaging yet emotional piece of work that is beautifully created and performed.


The set and direction elevates what is already a remarkable piece of writing. Designer April Dalton has expertly crafted a time capsule 90s pub room (though in fact a fair few of these still hang on in Cardiff). From the garish mish-mashed carpet, to the velvet covered bar stools, battered low tables and even plastic ashtrays. Stepping in from the bar at Porters- all 00’s cool and Hipsters- feels like being pulled back in time to pubs and Britpop. You can almost smell the time of cigarette smoke and alcoho-pops. The design works effectively for the storytelling, with Hammett weaving in and out of tables- at times clambering over audience members. But also able to pause in front of a table, and tell his story directly to whoever is front of him. It’s intimate in a way that is stark even for The Other Room space, and it’s incredibly effective in transporting the audience into that world. Credit particularly to Ryan Stafford’s lighting design, that helps convey the sense of place as it moves from home to pub, to club to house party to cold street. Interwoven with sound design that weaves both ‘Bangin’ 90s tunes’ from the tape deck, through to an ocean and even Caroline Street on a weekend (that is after all a particular sound).  Matthew Holmquist has with his team truly crated the world of the play, and it feels like being part of a very particular moment in time.


Holmquist credits the power of music in his programme note, and this is integral to the narrative, and feel of the piece. It’s engrained in Jones’ writing, that movement captured, the feeling of a time and place. Who hasn’t been transported back by the opening bars of a track? And teenage years are, like nothing else, encapsulated by the music we listen to. All those emotions, all those hormones raging and finding the perfect song that echoes it. Whether a 90s kid or not, everyone can recognise that. Of course those lucky enough to have their teenage years in the 90s will grin in recognition, cringe at the memory and no doubt have a few associative memories of their own. More than this though, music drives and weaves its way into the plot. Moments of music are emotional and narrative markers, intersecting with this snapshot of 90s teenage life. And it is the most unexpected of tracks that comes back, and hits with an emotional clout that will probably stay with anyone who sees this play.


Jack Hammett’s performance is one to be commended. An actor who has been with the piece for a long time, there’s a clear sense of knowing the character, and the world of the play. And with it a real care and attention for the work. As much as his performance is effervescent with energy there’s a quiet balance to it, and an attention to detail that really elevates his performance. As subtle as Jones’ writing is as times- not giving too much away in terms of detail- in Hammett’s performance there’s a real sense of the world behind the lines. He channels the energy of a teenager, his mind racing from one thought, one memory to the next. But always fully in control ready to slam on the breaks, and bring the audience into a quieter moment, reflective thought- but immediately bring them along again for the next burst of energy. Within the intimate confines of the space it’s a remarkable thing to witness, and he handles the subtle audience interaction effortlessly, bringing additional power to the performance, pulling everyone in and along with him. Added to this the true vulnerability and openness with which he tells the story, in even a relatively short time, he makes the audience such a part of his world, that following him through to the end is an emotional journey.
But Hammett is given much to play with on that journey. On one level Jones has written a salute to both Cardiff and the 1990s and that is a joy of a ride. Both are painted vividly, the 1990s through music and a peppering of cultural references. And Cardiff looms large as another character in the play. And while it’s practical illegal to set a play in Cardiff and not mention Caroline Street, Jones’ writing is another level of depth. Cardiff feeds the narrative, weaves its way into it alongside the 90s tunes. Anyone familiar with the city will get a kick out of the references, those who remember the Cardiff of the 1990s, or lived and grew up in East Cardiff perhaps more so. From the opening descriptions we’re walked through the Llanederyn Estate, and the imagery is so vivid, so clear you could walk that route based on it. Across the play the level of detail really brings it to life. From a line about the Claude pub, that if you know it will make you howl. Back to bringing the 90s back to life again with ‘return of the fucking Mac.’ Who knew?


The writing is fast and funny, but importantly has such an emotional core. Importantly Jones is writing a Working-Class voice. More importantly it’s one without asking for pity, or indeed a story driven by its Working-Class roots. That’s so important. We need voices like this on stage. Specifically in this case voices that don’t pronounce the ‘Ll’ in ‘Llanederyn properly. But whose entire story isn’t about to be driven by that. The story, the character is shaped by that, as we all are, as he should be. But it’s not the story, and that’s important. It’s important that he mentions, in 90s Cardiff if you didn’t have a car you didn’t get to a proper supermarket. Or that the Estate is not really a community, but everyone knows each other (yes, thank you enough with the romanticised Working Class is always a glorious community narratives!). It’s important he’s from East Cardiff and shows Splott isn’t the only Working Class neighbourhood in Cardiff. And yes, it drives the plot that his parents are ‘pretty poor actually’ because that’s part of who he is, and what drives him. But that’s not all he is.
Jones cleverly doesn’t give us too much information, either at any one time, or indeed overall. We get hints, we hear something of his parents, but not too much. The trust in the audience to fill in the blanks. Again, with School we hear some, enough for it to perhaps be recognisable, but not too much. The friendship group even, some of whom are sketched out almost in the background, but that’s ok, we just need a sense of the world as we navigate thought it. All of if cleverly blends in this stream of consciousness, non-linear glimpse into adolescence and all its complications.  It’s a story that touches on many important issues- yes class but also toxic masculinity, sexuality (hell it’s a teenage story sex in general), friendship and grief. It’s powerful work of the kind that sneaks up on you with its honesty.

Epilogue

I may start adding these to reviews with a particular emotional resonance. Don’t read below here if you haven’t seen the play and fear spoilers.
Cardiff Boy was one of the most emotional experience I’ve had in the theatre in a long while. Just ask my poor companion whose jumper I sobbed into at the end.
Of course there’s always something special about a play that connects so strongly with where you’re from in more ways than one. I’m a teenager of the 1990s. I’m firmly of the opinion that music and frankly the world peaked around 1995. I did those teenage years in East Cardiff, the rough bit, a stone’s throw from Llanederyn estate that Kevin Jones eloquently describes (In Rumney, if anyone’s curious). I went to a school much like the one described. My boy mates were much like the group described. I knew these people. The writing, and yes the music feels like home. But as the slightly tangential, slightly ranty portion of the review above suggests, those voices are important. I don’t want working class tales that tell me how grim it is. It was sometimes, I mean its no fun being the only one with a Peacocks jacket not a branded sport one. And being from there, yes it’s part of my identity, all our identities, but it’s not all of us. And we can and should have characters on stage for whom that is true too; they are shaped by it and not defined by it, that every story isn’t about it. And yes, remembering when writing about Cardiff that Splott isn’t the only working-class area is also great.
That’s tangential, and a little ranty. And partly why Cardiff Boy made me so emotional. It’s that connection, with a time, with a place. And the music, as above, there’s something about the music of your teenage years that engrains itself to your soul. So while those songs weren’t all the ones that I was connected to, they’re familiar, so familiar and a sound of a time and place and that’s powerful.
But that’s not the only reason why (again spoilers avert your eyes, etc.) At the end, when we hear of the friend’s death. And we hear of the group of teenagers, and adults mourning him. There’s a certain kind of connection there that, if you know you know.
When I was in 6th form, I remember my R.S teacher telling us, that the first person of our own age who died would be the hardest. That we expect people older than us to die, it’s the natural order of things. But that you never expect someone your own age to die. And the younger it happens, the harder it is. There were only 6 of us in that R.S class. By the end of our first year of university, we were planting a tree in the school grounds for one of us who had died. A freak accident. Nobody could have predicted. And she was right.
There’s a particular kind of language, or a lack of language for capturing that moment. For what you go through as a group. It’s almost inextricable certainly unexplainable but something in that final scene utterly perfectly and painfully expresses that. That moment where the boys use music- and yes Return of the Fucking Mack- to remember their friend, because its those flashes of memory that’ll stay with you. For longer than they perhaps realise in that moment.

It was a thing I didn’t know I’d been searching to figure out how to feel, for many years now. So, thank you to Kevin Jones for that.
And to my friend from so long ago, it’s a weird thing but I think of you when I eat pears. And I sometimes see you waving to me across the road from Roath Park lake.
Cardiff Boy by Kevin Jones
Presented by 
Red Oak Theatre
Running From: 30 October – 11 November 2018
Performed at The Other Room, Cardiff
Director: Matthew Holmquist
Cast: Jack Hammett
Designer: April Dalton
Lighting Designer: Ryan Stafford
Stage Manager: Joshua Bowles
Sound Designer: Joshua Bowles
Producer: Ceriann Williams
Assistant Director: Nerida Bradley
Assistant Designer: Lauren Dix

Derwen- Invertigo Theatre

Tim Crouch’s play ‘An Oak Tree’ uses the idea of suggestion, belief and how we find out the answers to questions, to explore the idea of grief. Here translated into Welsh by Invertigo (translation by Mared Llewelyn Williams) it becomes ‘Derwen’. The play is known for the fact that one of the two actors on stage has never seen the script before. The other, ‘The Hypnotist’ guides them through with verbal instructions, and script in hand moments. The set up: the Hypnotist accidentally killed the daughter of the other character ‘Andy’. And Andy has come to his show, seeking answers.
It’s a fascinating pretext, at once playing with our expectations and preconceptions of theatre and confronting us with them. We’re never left in any doubt that this is performance, it’s self-referential, the actor- particularly the unrehearsed one- is continually shows to be ‘in performance’ but still we believe they are the father. They transform and yet they don’t, precisely demonstrating Crouch’s idea of suggestion, and indeed belief.
The translation to Welsh, and particularly a subtitled performance, adds to this somewhat. The staging that emphasises the artifice of theatre, the performative element of what we’re seeing, is added to by rolling subtitles behind. For those with a knowledge of Welsh as well, the minor linguistic phrasing differences also add to this world of ‘what we are told, what is happening, what we believe.’
But all the theatrical experimentation, although valid in its own right, here serves a narrative and a wider purpose. Derwen is a play about grief, and how we deal with but first of all seek, our answers. The idea of hypnosis conjures images of these answers of course always being inside us- the Hypnotist can only suggest after all, everything else must come from the person being hypnotised. Crouch’s writing takes us then through both the mind of the Hypnotist and Andy as we see they are both seeking to unravel what happened the evening of the accident. The Hypnotist keeps saying he’s lost his ability since then, and it becomes clear that the hypnosis, this night of what he views as one of his last performances is as much for unravelling his grief as it is Andy’s.
Steffan Donnelly is such an engaging, likeable actor that he brings an immediate charm to that of the Hypnotist. Early in the play he tells the second actor not to worry because ‘they’ (the audience) will all be after him anyway. But as much as the Hypnotist is strange, as much as we are told over and over- by him- that he’s done something terrible, Donnelly brings to him a warmth and vulnerability that really pulls an audience into his story. What Donnelly does logistically, on top of the performance makes the performance he delivers all the more impressive.
The Hypnotist is also as a performer makes the whole ‘show’ run in every sense. So, Donnelly runs the set-up, bringing in the unrehearsed performer, explaining the set up to the audience and them, and running the logistics of putting that performer in the show. This involves switching between his own performance- even though much of it is done ‘in character’ to feeding lines, moving the actor around the space and of course making sure their performance runs smoothly. Much of it shifts into ‘meta’ territory including a scripted pause where the two of them reflect on the show so far. But as scripted as it all is, pause really should be given to the logistics of keeping the show, and unrehearsed actor running, while also delivering a moving performance. And it is moving, we see him unravelling while controlling the show-within-the-play, and as an actor controlling the play. It’s clever writing and clever performance. But the moments it stops being conscious show the cracks, and that’s the power in Crouch’s writing, and Donnelly’s performance.
This performance’s unrehearsed actor was Sian Reese Williams. Clearly not the unshaven 6ft 2in Andy as the script described. Yet from the first moment she was- and of course wasn’t. That’s the beauty of Crouch’s writing, and the way Donnelly guides her through the performance, she is at once changed, and becomes the grieving father, but we also continually are conscious she’s an actor making her way through unfamiliar text. For an audience, as much as an actor that’s an exhilarating experience, because we’re constantly reminded we’re discovering this too, it stops the passivity of watching a play and engages, as we will the performer on, but also long to discover the next step with her. Reese Williams performed brilliantly- balancing humour with a moving and engaged performance. The ability to connect so quickly with the material is one that’s to be commended, and to find a good balance of chemistry with Donnelly- vital for the piece to work.
Derwen works beautifully on two levels- it’s an intellectual theatrical exercise that’s fascinating to watch, but also a genuinely moving piece of storytelling. Crouch’s writing proves that it’s possible to be theatrically innovative, challenge your audience’s perceptions, but also create something entertaining and indeed moving. In this production, and in presenting it in translation, Invertigo prove the enduring power of the piece and the questions it asks. The answers for which, might well also lie with ourselves.