The World Only Spins Forward-on to 2019

‘The World Only Spins Forward’

Someone said that to me last night, and that’s how I’m choosing to look at 2019.

I couldn’t bring myself to write a 2018 reflective post this year. It would have been a pointless exercise in melancholy and anger. And really what’s the point, when indeed, the world only spins forward.

Of 2018, I’ll just say what I said on twitter;

 

 

 

I plan to channel my inner Prior Walter, and go on fighting, rather than dwell on the past.

And out of all that, I have if nothing else a lot more inner strength. The last year didn’t break me. It doesn’t really matter who does or doesn’t like me, who is speaking to me, and who isn’t. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but in the long term it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that two crappy temp jobs didn’t work out. It doesn’t matter I’m not yet in a ‘proper job’ because I got this far.

Less talked about were the times my body tried to finish me off a bit. I talked finally here about my chronic illness, and a few times this year I thought I was heading towards a lot of the more serious consequence. But I escaped for now, and so onwards.

I don’t know if any of the creative projects I worked on in 2018 will see the light of day in 2019. And as much as at times it felt like a waste of time, endless frustration and ‘is it even worth it’ I still have learned something from each of them. So if something comes of any of them in 2019, 2020 or some indeterminate point in the future, it’s ok. I have learned something from the process, from the work itself, and none of it is a waste, none of it is lost.

Creatively I learned a lot about how to work, and the only way I will work going forward. That is openly, collaboratively and as an equal with others. I won’t take being made second fiddle, I won’t take my work or my time being under valued. I’ve been incredibly lucky with some true collaborative partnerships, which made me realise any other way just isn’t worth it.

Going forward I’ll also value my writing, my time to write. And I’ll protect it fiercely. My biggest mistake of 2018 was letting everyone else chip away at my writing time. Because society, even creative society doesn’t value writing in the way it should. Doesn’t value the time and space it takes to write. I can’t pull plays, or indeed a book out of my arse (well I can, and will but the pulling out takes time). I also let others tell me that chasing mythical jobs I didn’t want was more important than the writing that might get me where I want to go. Quitting to pursue a real job might come, it might come this year, but it’ll come on my terms when I’ve gone as far as I can go. And until then I’m saying ‘no, I’m writing’ as much as I want to. Or ‘No I’m working on the book/play/musical’ rather than saying yes to everything because I should.

And what of the book? well mainly it’s a set of muffled screams and my own fuck ups. But that’s ok. It’ll work out. As will the other projects on the go. I’ve come this far, waited this long. It’ll work out.

2018 was of course a bookmark in my ‘Angels in America’ chapter. Goodbyes, yes but some moving forward to the next. I was tidying up for New Year’s Day and found these two pictures, from Bethesda. The first from the first time I went there, before I knew this play. Before that place meant anything. And last summer, when it meant everything.

 

I get also that there are those who judge me for such focus on one play. And that’s ok, I know there’s more to me- and I know there will be more I have to offer. But I have to finish this first. And hey, if something never meant that much to you, maybe someday it will.

I’m disappearing into the book for a bit. Academic hat on (it’s floppy, it’s the only reason to do a PhD). But no matter how much the theatre community tries to tell me that means otherwise, I’m no less a playwright for that either. I’m no less a part of your world, not less a part of the academic world when I pick up my playwright hat (it has sequins). And if I put either down to earn a living, I’m no less either.

2018 taught me many things, but the main one was indeed ‘the world only spins forward’ so let’s keep spinning forward.

 

 

 

Shows I Can’t Shake 2018



In addition to the usual ‘top 10’ theatre productions of the year which can be found here this year I had that many productions that had a profound impact on me, that I wanted to record that. So here, is the collection of 2018 productions that will be with me for a long time. 


 Cardiff Boy

Original Review Here 

Sometimes the right mix of things comes along in a play, at the right moment, and it’s just theatrically perfect in that moment. That doesn’t mean the play itself has to be perfect- what play is really- but what you’re looking for is that perfect blend of alchemy that makes it work for you in that moment.

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. I don’t want working class tales that tell me how grim it is. 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 what the story is about is a particular kind of loss. There’s a certain kind of connection there that, if you know you know.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. Sometimes a production just hits all those marks at once, in a very personal way. Cardiff Boy did that for me. And I was so grateful.




Wicked



I hadn’t seen this in 10 years. Sometimes what a show means is all the things you associate it with. I had a short intense affair with Wicked. I saw it 5 times over the first 5 years. And then I was done. Forever it is associated with that time in my life. The little lost 23-year-old. And the people who were with me at the time.
The last time I saw Wicked was with my ex-girlfriend. We saw Idina’s last show. And forever, for better or worse that show was tied up with them, the friendship group we were in, and that period of my life. There was no sadness with that mostly, it just felt like a closed chapter. And that’s ok. But it’s funny how our theatrical memories are tied up with those we experience them with. And I can’t help but wonder how I’ll look back on Wicked again in that respect. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about growing up with, and seeing a musical anew.
The song that gets you as a ‘proper grown up’ in Wicked is ‘For Good’ it’s that song of all the loves and friendships lost. And at 34 not 23, that’s so much more poignant. So much more water under the bridge.
‘I know I’m who I am today because I knew you’
That rings true of every person who passes through our lives.
‘It well may be, that we will never meet again, in this lifetime’
Rings harder for all those you didn’t really want to lose.
In spectacular timing, I saw Wicked a few short days after my closest friend of some 8 years decided we couldn’t be friends any more. People under estimate the impact losing a friend can have, especially as an adult. Seeing Wicked again at that moment hurt- but in the moment I chose to think of someone else. I chose to think of my dear friend Ryan who is the same age I was when I first loved Wicked and loves it like I did then. And who is a true and lovely friend I met through theatre. In that moment I chose to use Wicked to celebrate the ten or more years of friendships theatre has given me.
‘Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, because I knew you I have been changed for good’
Like theatre itself, many of the friends I have made through it have come and gone. But I’ve been changed for the better, by them all.


Bat Out of Hell  


Let’s get one thing clear. I know nothing about Meatloaf. My familiarity with the back catalogue comes from that one he sang with Celine Dion, and that one which Jeremy Jordan sings on Youtube. Meatloaf is not normally my jam, but I will always, always love this musical because it’s so special to a friend of mine. And whether I’d loved the show or not (I did!) that was enough.
Without sharing (or over-sharing) the details. My friend both fell in love with this musical, and it came to mean a great deal more to them this year. When they offered to take me as a Birthday present, in order to share this thing, they loved, that was really special to me. I know how hard it is to share a thing you love for fear someone else won’t love it like you do. But also, it’s so touching to be that person someone wants to share it with. I had a BRILLIANT time at Bat. I’ve still got no idea what happened, but that’s ok, it was a great time getting there. And forever that’ll be something special I shared with my friend, and knowing what this musical means to them, that’s really special to me.
My friend’s guest blog can be found here

Fun Home


Original review here 

There was a moment less than five minutes into Fun Home when I knew this was the perfect musical. That is the perfect musical for me. You get a sense after a few years of theatre going when something is going to click. And when Bruce pulled out the silver vase from the box of junk, something just clicked, and I was in it.
I had done the almost impossible with Fun Home and managed to know little or nothing about it. And it’s a rare gift to discover something new like that, and have it resonated so hard. It is for those of us who go to the theatre often, particularly those of us who do so professionally in some capacity, that we lose some of that magic through exposure. For me this year, Fun Home was a reminder of that magic. That thing that comes from nothing to hitting you over the head so fast you barely have time to register it’s coming. My only regret is that I only got to see it once. And yet, I would be forever chasing that initial high. I cried, pretty much from Ring of Keys until the end, and it was beautiful, and cathartic. And I felt seen.
‘I know you’
Those words, at the end of Ring of Keys, sent a ripple through the audience from every person in the audience who knew what she meant. Every Queer person in that room knew what she meant. Alison Bechtel gave all of those women that moment Little Alison was having: I have seen, and I feel seen. And I don’t feel alone.
I’m a firm believer that some pieces of work find you when you’re ready. I wasn’t drawn to Fun Home during its original run in New York, despite being there at the time. It wasn’t my time for it, not then. This time it was. I find it interesting that I have only been moved like that ‘in the room’ by two other pieces of theatre, one of which was Rent. I found Rent (or it found me) at the precise moment I needed it. And it’s stayed with me. While I don’t intend doing anything so ridiculous as writing a PhD on Fun Home, there are works you see and just know are going to form a part of your DNA from now on. Because you see them and feel like they needed to be there all along. Fun Home was one of those.

Company


Original review here 

Another case of a musical arriving at the right moment. For me, but for theatre too perhaps. It is of course discussed at length by myself and others how important this reimagining has been.

‘There’s knowing you’ll love a show. And there’s not knowing how much you needed a show’
That’s how I opened my review of Company, and that still for me sums it up. It’s a musical and a production that if I’m honest has been tarnished for me since. A friend of mine- one of my closest friends in fact- got so angry that I published an article on it, that she ended 8 years of friendship. As above, that hurts. It requires a kind of grieving we’re not equipped to express. But for me it makes Company equally resonant. When you’re not married, and over 30, people start leaving you out. They leave you out of events. They leave you out of conversations because you ‘wouldn’t understand.’ The most upsetting part of watching Company was sitting there thinking ‘they’re going to leave her’ not of the men, but of her friends. And ßso, you question, do I join them? Whether I want that, want ‘him’ or not? Just to not be alone? Or do I stick to who I am, and risk that, being alone. Not even risk just wake up one day and find its happened.
I had a conversation with Marianne Elliott, for research on my book, not long after I saw Company. And what we talked about in regard to Company is what stayed with me about the production, about why it meant so much. When a woman decides to be in a relationship it impacts everything. In a way that it doesn’t for a man. The knock-on effect through her life, her career, her friends, her body. Is seismic. Somehow without changing a word, Company captures that. I have found myself in that moment before, since Company in fact. That moment teetering on a cliff wondering if it’s worth the leap. And the truth is, like for Bobbie, most of the time it isn’t. And in a musical over 30 years old, Marianne Elliott gave us a way to say it, and see it.
And I am so thankful for that. For feeling the woman, front and centre on stage and for all those women in the audience I’m sharing it with. All it’s complexities. I don’t need a happy ending for that to be important. I just needed to feel like a story I’ve lived has been told. And it has. And I am so thankful.
And from a theatrical point of view. It was time, it was damn time, that a woman got to belt out Being Alive. For every theatre kid who grew up wanting the parts they were told they can’t have. Marianne Elliott and Rosalie Craig gave us that as well.

Angels in America


My longer goodbye to Angels is here 

What can I say about this production that I haven’t already said, at length? It changed my life. I mean I’ve got little more than that. It has consumed these last two theatrical years of my life, in this incarnation.
Which brings me to, line that made me cry the hardest the final three times (London and New York) that I saw it. And it’s not one I ever expected. Not one I ever noticed before if I’m honest.
“You’ll find, my friend, what you love will take you places you never dreamed you’d go”
It’s Roy Cohn for God’s sake. You’re not supposed to align yourself with Roy Cohn in this play-or frankly anywhere in life. And as much as this blog isn’t to rehash these stories, I have to say without this play, without this production I don’t know where I’d be. This play really did take me places I never dreamed I’d go. I hope it will continue to do that. And I will forever be grateful to the doors it opened (or at least loosened enough for me to kick down). And even if it was the end, it really did take me some places.
‘Nothing’s lost forever’ after all, and we know ‘the world only spins forward’ but saying goodbye to this one was the hardest theatrical goodbye I’ve made. I do miss it. I am incredibly pragmatic- even dogmatic about theatrical productions existing for the time they should. And Angels did. But there are days when I just miss it being out there somewhere in the world. On that note however, sometimes you get to say the goodbye you need to in theatre. Those who don’t understand never will, but there’s sometimes, for something so special, that need to say goodbye. And I got the perfect goodbye.
And here is my last chance perhaps to say it, that everything about this production, this experience of it, was perfect. Even the elements that aren’t- because no production is- but those are discussions for the book, not for here. Here I just want to say, it was everything I could have wanted and needed it to be as a production. Some shows on this list, in life, fill you with exhilaration, extreme emotion, a high you can never quite recreate. I think of Angels and I get an overwhelming feeling of peace. Something I never got in previous production I’d seen. Sometimes the pieces just fall into place. And for me this production felt like coming home. I’ve mentioned a lot in this year’s review a sense of the right production at the right time. And this was mine. It took 14 years of loving this play to find my version, the version I’ll forever see when I read the play. Other Prior Walters will come and go. Some will be better some will be worse than Andrew Garfield. But forever it will be his face, his voice I see. My Louis, finally finding my Louis. My Mother Pitt. A variety of Joes. They’ll all stay, taking up residence in my head forever. And as I wrote that I smiled. Because what more really can you ask for?
It’s just a play. But it’s so much more than that. And that’s why it’s still my number one of this year, and probably this decade. Maybe a lifetime. For everything beyond the theatre it’s been. For every person who judged me for ‘wasting’ my time, my life on it. For every disparaging comment, there’s been a village of people around this play. From the people who came up to me at the theatre or arranged to meet because we were there at the same time. For the friends who hugged me hard and shared the day in London with me last summer. To the friends on Twitter who ceaselessly have cheered me on. To everyone who gets it. To everyone who reads these epic monologues of blog posts.  For everyone waiting for the book, know it’s for all of you I keep writing it.
‘You are fabulous creatures each and every one.’
For the final time. For now, at least ‘I’m almost done’
But, as Prior says also, ‘It’s so inadequate, it’s so much not enough.’ But if nothing else I want to use this review of the year. The final real review that Angels will feature in to send my thanks into the universe to everyone who made it happen. Maybe you know what you did, what you were a part of maybe you don’t. But know you changed one person. Know that you gave someone something that will stay with them for a lifetime.
And of course, a lifetime of ‘thank you’ wouldn’t be enough for how Marianne Elliott’s work inspires and changes me every time. A director who gave me back the thing I loved, and the thing I didn’t know I needed.


2018 Top 10




10. Ten Plagues- Mark Ravenhill 
One that kind of snuck into consciousness and didn’t let go. Understandably given my research and theatrical passions this from Mark Ravenhill on parallels between the Black Death and AIDS struck a chord. More than that the sheer beauty of the production left a mark long after the event.


9. Lovecraft (Not the sex shop in Cardiff)- Carys Eleri 

Part theatre, part cabaret, part Professor Brian Cox lecture, if he sang a song about boobs. This from Carys Eleri was a delight from start to finish. It managed what few ‘normal’ plays do: delivered a warm engaging story while also giving your brain something to think about.
8. Tuck- Alun Saunders 
Original review here 
‘A hymn to Queer culture’ sums this play from Alun Saunders up perfectly. Yes, there was something still ‘rough around the edges’ in terms of the play itself, but the story, the ambition of it, and the voices it shared outweigh that in swathes of glitter. We need Queer stories from Queer voices on stage. And this offered an important blend of this. While being fun and fabulous.
7. The Inheritance – Matthew Lopez 

Despite a difficult personal relationship with this play, I cannot leave Matthew Lopez’s play out of this list. Like the play I list either side, for me, the very showcasing of Queer voices on a platform like this, is imperative.
For me, I am too close to the material intellectually that Lopez grapples with to fully appreciate the experience as some have done. I do appreciate how immersed he is in Queer theatre, theatre and writing on the AIDS epidemic, and how integrated into the work that is. Is it a perfect piece of theatre? Far from it in my opinion, and I mean that judgment in relation to the phenomenal achievement it already is. But it is an important and intelligent piece of work, and one of the finest of this year.
And for the ending of Part 1 alone, which is one of the singularly most emotional moments I have ever experienced in the theatre, it deserves to be on this list.
Also points for the extreme knitwear on display in this production. 
6. The Boys in the Band 

Original Review here 
This is a classic- maybe even seminal ‘gay play’. And such labels shouldn’t be important, but they are. And this play should perhaps be retired as a museum piece in terms of the themes, and elements it depicts. Except they are shockingly current still. The ideas of shame for gay men, homophobia, the conflict of trying to live in a heteronormative society. This didn’t feel like the 1970s, it felt like today. So, while the jokes may now fly in the face of what we’re comfortable with, the underlying themes resonate. The fact that Joe Mantello cast a cast of ‘out’ gay actors, also shouldn’t be noteworthy, and yet it was. So, this play remains important. And deserves its place in this list.

5. Cardiff Boy 
Original Review here
This from Kevin Jones hit all the right notes; 90s nostalgia, teenage troubles and a familiar setting. It’s a great snapshot of teenage life. About the incidental elements that impact so much in that period, and also the huge moments that take you by surprise when you aren’t quite an adult. It was an elegantly constructed production from a young company. And they served the writing, and audiences well in their approach.
What Cardiff Boy did well, alongside the funny, touching and very honest storytelling, was offer Working Class voices space on stage. Where class wasn’t the driving force, but an element in the boarder picture. It informed the story, but was never the focus. And that’s what broadening the stories we tell looks like.
Cardiff Boy was an utter gem of a production. That fine balance of laugh out loud moments, mixed with a through line of strong storytelling and an emotional punch. Theatrically it’s the simplest of devices- storytelling- and one that we often overlook. And as a package it was one worth celebrating.

4. Eugenius 
Original Review here
This fun filled sci fi musical hits all the right buttons. It’s an original British musical filled with perfectly crafted pop-musical songs. It cleverly blends homage to the sounds of the 80s, with contemporary pop. And it’s an original British musical. For the sheer joy this production brought it is rightly near the top of this list.
It’s also a perfectly pitched ‘geek’ story. It’s about geeks for geeks. It’s filled with fun references and in jokes without feeling exclusive. It’s the story of a geek getting the girl without being patronising. It’s romantic without being over the top. It’s funny without insulting anyone. It’s pitch perfect and I hope to Tough Man we get this Comic Book kind of love back again next year.
Top works of a year don’t have to be worthy, or intellectual always. The point of theatre is fun, is entertainment as much as it is to educate or be political. Eugenius was hands down the most fun I had in the theatre this year. So much that I went twice. Also a singular joy was watching the fans of the show who had been before dance and sing along at the finale. It felt like a celebration of what theatre should be.
3. Fun Home 
Original thoughts here 
The Fun Home finally came to London. And it was worth the wait. While the storyline may move some more than others, something that may be highly relative to personal experience, as a musical it is perfectly crafted. It is very difficult to come up with, or argue critique of how Fun Home is put together as a piece. It’s as musically intelligent as it is intellectual, but also incredibly accesible. 
The Young Vic production more than did the material justice, with the British cast more than matching their American counterparts from the original. As ever Jenna Russell was a standout in the production. Hear ‘Years and Years’ a quietly devastating show stopper. For some the Fun Home didn’t hit the emotional notes they wanted it to, but for those it resonated with, it resonated hard. And as with much of this year’s list, it’s about feeling seen on stage. Queer women telling their stories is a powerful thing, and few do it as well as Fun home. 
2. Company 
Original thoughts here and here and an article for American Theatre here 
‘Want something’ is the refrain that sticks in my head from Company. And this was the production of Company we not so much wanted but needed. It’s impossible to conceive a version of this musical for 2018 that doesn’t have a female lead. Or indeed, outside of being a museum piece, an often pointless exercise in theatre, how it can be again. 
It was an exercise in daring, re-writing Sondheim. And one that lesser directors could not have pulled off. The production is of course, stunning and slick and the cast radiating with talent. But that’s not really the point. Not really. The point is something a little bit harder and unrefined, that hard truth underneath it that the gender switch reveals. Something that is incredibly powerful, and incredibly necessary for our times. 

1. Angels in America 

There’s a hell of a lot I wrote on this. But these were my final two here and here 

Is it a cheat listing it two years in a row for the number 1 slot? maybe. Is it a cheat having the same director hold 1 and 2 …no. Because that is precisely the point. I can personally think of no director in living memory who has achieved this; two seminal productions in one years. Two reworking of classic texts so remarkable that they simply have to be singled out as the best of the year. 

Nobody really needs to hear any more of my thoughts on Angels (least of all Elliott herself as it happens). And this is not the place for the details  of why this production was so incredible. It is the act of taking it to Broadway itself, the act of pulling that production together two years in a row. The sheer strength of not only talent as a director, but the strength of character as a person- as a woman- to take that play, and put it back on Broadway. That is the greatest achievement in theatre of this year for me. 
To fly that Angel back home. And to do it not ‘better’ than others before (though I would argue yes, that too) but like Company, to deliver the version of this play, for this time. That is a rare skill. And a vital one. That’s what made both Company and Angels the best productions of the year. They offer the version of that, in this case, classic text, that theatre needs, that people need, for that moment. And that’s what theatre is about; capturing that moment. 
The beauty of Angels in America under Elliott’s hand will stay with me for years to come. The sweeping grandeur and the attention to detail. The alchemy of a director mixing that cast together into something that worked, that served the text. For wrangling that text, for making sense of that vast incomprehensible work. The sheer theatrical achievement of this production means it deserves this top spot two years in a row. 



Cheer- Big Loop Theatre- The Other Room

The Other Room have established themselves as the Channel 4 of Christmas in Cardiff, with their alternative Christmas show. And this year, up and coming company Big Loop are resident with Cheer.
It’s an entertaining enough piece of alternative Christmas, with just enough cynicism to feel like a grown-up alternative to the usual Christmas flair. The idea itself it’s that original- cooler reviewers would compare it to Black Mirror, all I could think was ‘Hunger Games with Christmas’. The premise being that the world is now a dystopian divided society where the rich have sectioned off districts where Christmas is permitted, and the poor have to buy black market Christmas decorations and rely on the artificial stimulate ‘Cheer’ in order to pretend they have what the rich do. What it does do is raise a multitude of questions about the rich/poor divide, commercialism, expectation, family, substance abuse, privilege, and a whole stocking full more. 
Kitty Hughes script itself however feels underdeveloped, and as a result in the latter half feel repetitive- rather then delving deeper into the character’s lives or reasoning, we are stuck in a bit of a loop of the emptiness of Christmas. That Todd wants to get Christmas for his family feels like the set up, but we never really get to the motivations why- why this Christmas (it’s hinted at but never explained), what drove him to desperation of selling Cheer and hunting down Joules now? Similarly, we never learn what pushed her to leave her life, the latter half of the script feels like it’s building to that, but never quite gets there. Their shared experiences of a Christmas that doesn’t quite measure up is a great set up and brings the two characters together in the middle of the script effectively, but it’s missing something of a second half development and conclusion that would have really made the script click. Alongside that, the working-class character feels a little too close to caricature to be comfortable. It’s a hard line to walk, especially given the set up, and with a little more character development that probably would have been avoided.
It is however immensely entertaining and engaging. There are some genuine laughs, and as the final scenes unravel, a real sense of care and engagement for Joules in particular. The characters themselves are likeable while having distinctly unlikable traits- the perfect Christmas combination. Cory Tucker plays Todd with an affable charm and makes him feel genuinely like the nice guy who just got a bit desperate. His cheeky-charm ways with Joules as well make him feel genuine and strays away from trying to make this working-class character seem too ‘street’ or over the top. Alice Downing gives a strong performance as Joules. She’s funny and forthright with exactly the right dry wit in her delivery for this script. But underneath that she manages to execute the slow unravelling of Joules. She’s an intensely watchable and interesting performer and she really holds the piece together.
The set is a delight. From the drab upstairs office of a pub (is that what the upstairs of Porters looks like?) opens up to a wondrously tacky Christmas Cupboard (not a euphemism). The kind that looks like your Aunt’s house circa 1989, all fluffy tinsel and baubles. Ceci Calf creates the perfect set for the script- the hidden Christmas, the over the top commercial feeling, the slightly tacky- and the dark depressing reality of the other side of things. It’s simple yet brilliantly effective.
Duncan Hallis directs with energy and a lot of honesty. While there might have been room for development in the script, Hallis brings out the best in it-which is a combination of the comedy, and the honesty lurking beneath it. The final segments have some powerful undertones, and Hallis knows when to pull back, and let those moments land with an audience. He also knows when to balance the absurdity of the comedy with enough humanity to keep the piece focused and engaged. Hallis’ direction wrangles both script and actors into an effective package that really helps to focus what feels like the heart of Kitty Hughes writing.
As much as Cheer perhaps misses a few opportunities, and doesn’t quite hit the marks it promises, there’s much to be applauded. Firstly, the chance to see any alternative Christmas show, and one that tries to tackle big issues while being entertaining is equally worthy of praise. As a company Big Loop are still developing, finding their feet and their voice, and Cheer is a departure from their previous devised work. And it works, it shows the potential of all involved.

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