American Nightmare : Review – Thursday 12th September 2019, The Other Room @ Porter’s Cardiff

Despite strong production elements, excellent casting and great direction the lack of originality in the concept means that American Nightmare fails to excite in the way it should.

★★★☆☆

The Other Room is back. With their first fully self produced season since Spring 2018, TOR presents “The Violence Series”, a trio of newly commissioned plays. First up is American Nightmare, written by TOR favourite and de-facto writer in residence (see Constellation Street and The Awkward Years) Matthew Bulgo.

Evidently a riff on the concept of the “American Dream” whereby equality and upwards mobility are available to all in the pursuit of aspirations and goals, American Nightmare takes that idea apart with a sledgehammer. In an unspecified future, the USA has become even more bitterly divided between the rich and poor. The concept of social mobility has crumbled, and the gap between the haves and have not’s has become a chasm larger than the Grand Canyon.

The play focuses on two sets of characters at diametrically opposed ends of the social spectrum. Far above the chaos and riots going on below, at the top of a skyscraper in New York City we meet Greg (Chris Gordon) , a British businessman and the woman he has been invited by, Clara (Ruth Ollman). Summoned to the States, Greg is wined and dined with the prospect of a business opportunity that could make him rich beyond his understanding. Meanwhile in a vast testing facility Elwood (Gwydion Rhys) and Daria (Lowri Izzard), desperate to leave behind a life of destitution on the streets, have signed up to a mysterious program overseen by an omnipotent projected character called “The Program” (Richard Harrington).

Throughout the play we are fed small nuggets of information about the state of the country. Wars and famine have led to the decay of America, a situation which Clara and her company have decided is unsustainable. Yet their proposed solution will push Greg to the limits of his own moral compass. Meanwhile as the regime below continues, the desperation of Elwood and Daria is clear as they push themselves to breaking point time and time again. Quite what the prize at the end of the tunnel is neither are quite sure, but what they are sure of is that is must be preferable to life outside. Similarly Greg is seduced by Clara’s patter, her charm and wit and finally by the breathtaking amount of money offered for something which even Clara can’t fully divulge the true nature of.

Directed by Sara Lloyd, the chemistry and dynamics between the two pairings is excellent. notwithstanding occasionally ropy American accents from some, the characters feel believable, and the interplay manages to pick out the humor and horror of Bulgo’s writing. From time to time the scenes gallop along a little too fast, which doesn’t allow enough time for pregnant pauses or the tension of subtext, yet generally this means that the production moves at a pace and doesn’t become stuck in a rut. The use of Video designer Simon Clode’s razor sharp projections as an overlay between scenes is excellent, its imagery hypnotic and evocative at subtly providing wider context between scenes. Once again the set design by Delyth Evans, shoved into the tiny theatre space, is excellent. Having Greg and Clara sitting literally above the others behind a movable wall is a clever way of using the space both physically and metaphorically. Yet despite all these separate elements, something in the piece is amiss.

The concept itself of a post/near apocalyptic world at the brink of societal collapse, with the rich becoming untouchable and the poor scrabbling around in the dust beneath is not a new concept or idea. It has been portrayed in every conceivable form from books and films, television and theatre countless times. The fact that American Nightmare borrows so heavily from these types of well worn tropes is sadly it’s biggest flaw. While the writing is strong and the chemistry between the pairings undeniable, the story goes down a well trodden path and its lack of originality means that when the reveal happens, it feels obvious and inevitable rather than shocking or surprising.

In taking his concept to its logical conclusion, Bulgo merely follows conventions rather than subverting them in any meaningful way. That is not to say the concept does not work – it is a sound one, and many parts of it feel like they have been thought through from a very 21st century angle. Despite strong production elements, excellent casting and great direction the lack of originality in the concept means that American Nightmare fails to excite in the way it should.

American Nightmare is running at The Other Room until Saturday the 29th September 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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Les Miserables : Review -Wednesday 27th March 2019, By August 012 @ Chapter Arts Centre

A frantic and unpredictable maelstrom of movement, music and anger. 

★★★☆☆

Where were you on the night of June 23rd 2016, the night of the EU referendum? Were you sat in your scruffy clothes on the sofa, gorging yourself on Doritos? Did you eat a microwave pizza before getting an early night, disgusted at the results you saw coming in? Or were you hundreds of miles away, partying  on a Greek island in blissful ignorance having voted via post a few weeks earlier? These are the situations that the characters in August 012’s production of Les Miserables (not the musical) find themselves in. Dovetailing the Battle of Waterloo as described in Victor Hugo’s novel with the night of the Brexit vote, August 012’s show is billed as a “raging theatrical lament”, and combines disparate theatrical elements in a chaotic canvas of anger and sadness.

Seated on two sides of the auditorium with a strip of turf in the middle, the audience enter the space with a selection of characters already alive within it. Nervously pacing back and forward, teeming with energy the characters seem ready to burst out of their skins. As the show starts, we are treated to an explanation of the battle of Waterloo (with useful and humorous comparisons of the scale of the battle when compared to  the size of Cardiff). This poetic description of the battle, intersected with passages from Hugo’s text, combines music and intriguing choreography from a chorus of female dancers to produce an engaging depiction of the confusion and clamor of this landmark European conflict.

At regular intervals this description cuts away, and we find ourselves back on that fateful night in June 2016. We are given snippets over a Tannoy of votes coming in from key constituencies as they are announced. We see the reaction from the cast as the result teeters on the edge of a knife before plummeting towards leave, and we see recreations of speeches from those politicians who were figureheads from both campaigns. What is clear from this piece is just how polarized the country has become since that date, and never is this made more obvious than in the use of two speeches made in the immediate aftermath of the result. The juxtaposition between the speeches used is telling: Nicola Sturgeon’s welcoming and conciliatory tone in immediately reminding European citizens they were welcome, versus Firebrand Nigel Farage’s vitriolic anti-establishment rhetoric decreeing the end of the “failed project” of European integration.

Sections of the piece are incredibly effective, with clever switches of character, use of space and set and comedy used to great effect. The tone of the production finds itself transitioning from comedy, to farce and then finally to a tragedy. With a multi-national cast of performers with roots in Europe, it is clearly a piece lamenting the UK’s choice to cast aside decades of cooperation. While these sections are impressive, what is less clear is the direct narrative links between Waterloo and Brexit, and what statement director Mathilde Lopez is trying to make by weaving the two together. While both were historic events which caused upheaval in Europe and confusion in their aftermath, there are other more recent (and perhaps relevant) European conflicts that could have been used. Could it be as simple as the fact that Waterloo took place close to Brussels, home of the many EU institutions, or is there a deeper link between the two? The links are never made clear, and as a result the concept feels slightly off kilter.

Since the EU referendum, politics in the UK has been anything but predictable. Designed to coincide with the UK’s planned departure on the 29th March 2019, August 012’s production feels somewhat less “of the minute” since the date of leaving has been moved to April 12 (or is it May 22? Or maybe even later? Honestly who even knows now). This is of course not in the control of the company, and is indeed something explicitly addressed early on in the piece. While not all sections of the production mesh together quite as sucesssfully as they could have done, Les Miserables  successfully combines a wide variety of theatrical conventions and styles into a frantic and unpredictable maelstrom of movement, music and anger.

 

Les Miserables is running at Chapter Arts Centre until the 2nd March 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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The TigerFace Show : Review – Wednesday 27th February 2019, The Other Room @ Porter’s Cardiff

A heartfelt and hilarious hour of cartoonish fun

★★★★☆

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? That’s the question posed to us as audience members on the way in to The TigerFace Show, with the tantalizing offer to write your career choice on a piece of paper for a chance to have your dreams come true live on stage. Intrigued, yet having depressingly drawn a blank on the question (Is happy a good enough answer) , I took my place in the audience. With a stage littered with cartoonish cardboard cutouts of trees, plants and stuffed animals, I wondered what mayhem was about to ensue. Arriving on stage to a hilariously mimed song, TigerFace (Justin ‘Teddy’ Cliffe) is a character in a children’s TV show, and we are the studio audience.

While the audience are initially hesitant to join in, before long Cliffe has got the audience participating; singing along, shouting out and miming along knocking an invisible ball back and forwards – before he playfully snaps out of character and reminds us there is nothing there. An early intervention from Cliffe mocks the pretention of theatre audience always assuming things have a deeper metaphorical meaning, reminding us that things can just be fun. Cliffe is an exert in clowning and physical movement based work, and his physicality and comic timing along with a cartoonish voice over and soundtrack is perfect. We’re taken on a journey through an episode, with Cliffe using puppets, projection and props to create a low budget fantasy land. Yet just as we’re getting suckered in to the fun, Cliffe injects moments of 4th wall breaking or black comedy into the piece. A bed-time story about a pet chimpanzee has a gruesome end, while a pair of worms (Cliffe’s fingers crudely shoved through holes in a box) end up having a domestic argument before our very eyes. Each section takes the cartoonishness of children’s television and puts an adult twist on it.

During in the final section of the piece the Cliffe’s mask (or should that be TigerFace) drops, and the truth we knew all along is revealed. TigerFace in’t a happy to lucky cartoon character, but a slightly depressed bloke in a tiger onesie. Cliffe recounts the fictional story of the cancelled TigerFace show, as well as a biographical account of his history of being a tiger – from face-paints at funfairs to being a drunken uni student. The message behind it? We all wanted to be something when we grew up, but at one point we gave up on those dreams. We are asked as audience members what we wrote on our paper, and if we had achieved it. While the answer was almost unanimously no, we are then reminded that while Cliffe isn’t a tiger, he can be ‘like a tiger’ and keep that childlike sense of hope and wonder with him. Finally in a dazzling crescendo we are treated to a spectacular finale of rhythmic gymnastics (children’s television style), and the aforementioned pledge to make someones childhood wish (nearly) come true. Combining brilliant storytelling, great physicality from Cliffe and one of the most (intentionally) terrible sets ever seen, The TigerFace Show is a heartfelt and hilarious hour of cartoonish fun.

 

The TigerFace Show is running at The Other Room Theatre until the 2nd March 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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See-Through : Review – Thursday 21st February 2019, The Other Room @ Porter’s Cardiff

See-Through is a fascinating show brimming with potential

★★★☆☆

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up, and who were your role models? Perhaps a footballer, or a scientist? Well according to new research, a growing number of children want to pursue a career as a vlogger or YouTube star. As the way people interact and consume content changes, new careers and opportunities will be presented to those who are able to find a gap in the market and capitalize on them. In See-Through, performer Claire Gaydon creates a semi-autobiographical multimedia experience about pursuing online fame, and what happens when you expose your innermost secrets to strangers on the other side of a computer screen.

Facing away from the audience, Gaydon sits at a laptop – the contents of which are projected on a screen. We are introduced to Claire, and told from the off that this is based on a true story (with the caveat that some moments have been fabricated). Before long Claire decides that she’s going to create a YouTube channel. But what should see say? Early scenes focus on Gaydon finding her voice, or her “character”. What is she going to say, and why? Clips on screen in which Gaydon interacts with friends of hers who are composers, designers and photographers are interesting. They discuss branding, style and content. The message is clear – while not traditionally a “product”, vlogging is still something that can be packaged, presented and consumed.  Rather than a fictional story however, the product that’s on offer is a voyeuristic peek inside someone’s life – regardless of how truly authentic this might actually be.

Having tried a few different styles of vlogs, Gaydon stumbles upon what type of videos get more hits – stories about her sex life and difficult or traumatic experiences. As the age old addage says – sex sells, and a Vlog entitled “Sex and Weed” gets 10x more views than others. Scenes in which Gaydon talks about these intensely personal experiences to camera are well crafted and emotive, delving into moments which some wouldn’t dare share with a significant other, let alone the internet. A section in which Gaydon asks an audience member (lucky me) to read out various comments received on a video help to demonstrate the huge array of responses that vloggers get from the kind “OMG you’re so relate-able” to the horrific “I’d have sex with you and leave you in a ditch”. This section cleverly teases the ugly underbelly of internet trolls, before tucking it back under the carpet.

See-Through is a fascinating show brimming with potential, which tackles the emerging industry of the lifestyle vlogger in an engaging way. The combination of live performance, pre-recorded videos and audience interaction is seamlessly performed. Yet it feels like when the show ends, it has only just started scraping the surface. It throws up questions about authenticity, performing yourself online, and the voyeuristic nature of those who spend hours watching videos. These topics are tossed up in the air and given a moment to shine, before settling back down into the dust without being examined in any great depth. Is sharing your deepest secrets online a healthy or safe thing to do, or is it just a narcissistic way of getting recognition? Can you truly be authentic online, or in an ever crowded market of other vloggers, will you always resort to more and more desperate ways of getting hits?

 

See-Through  is running at The Other Room Theatre until the 24th February 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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Just A Few Words : Review – Wednesday 13th February 2019, The Other Room @ Porter’s Cardiff

Just A Few Words combines stark minimalism with great comic moments and an emotionally resonant story. A powerful and engaging piece.

★★★★☆

Corinthian Pillar. Crystalised ginger. Agamemnon. What do these words have in common? Well, Stammermouth can say them. Telling someone how he feels about them on the other hand? Not quite so easy. When you’re trying confess to your feelings, words can fail anyone  – your mouth dries up, your palms get sweaty. Now imagine how much more difficult that must be if even the act of saying hello is a struggle. When you know that your mind is about 10 miles ahead of your mouth, but it refuses to play catch up. Just A Few Words is Stammermouth’s one person show about making your feelings known, when a speech impediment makes communicating the simplest of things difficult.

Originally performed at Edinburgh Festival in 2015, and having been seen in Cardiff for last year’s Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival where it won the Ticket Source Festival Favourite Award, Just A Few Words has made its way to The Other Room Theatre. So how does the show compare when seen in the purpose built theatre space of TOR, when compared to the gallery/studio space of Little Man Coffee’s downstairs room?  While the Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival production of the show was strong, bringing the show to a  dedicated theatre creates a much more intimate and focused performance. Utilising simple changes of light and transitions, Nye Russell-Thompson manages to adapt the piece to make it even more engaging. At times we are left as a passive audience, watching Nye struggle to make himself understood, but at other times the spotlight is (literally) on us, as we are asked to join in and to try and use techniques that Nye would use to counteract his stammer.

As the pieces goes on, Stammermouth becomes more and more exasperated with being unable to make himself understood. The piece uses pre-written queue cards to aid with communication. Whether these are another unseen character, or Nye’s self-depreciating consciousness is never made clear, but they are a humourous and incredibly effective theatrical tool. Nye is an excellent performer and is able to read and bounce of the nervous energy of a room with his impeccable comic timing. His awkward idiosyncrasies allow  us to truly understand what it must feel like to be so determined to tell someone you love them, but so unable to do so.

An emotive and engaging piece of theatre, Just A Few Words also manages to draw attention to an often forgotten disability – speech impediments. Other than Oscar winning film The King’s Speech, how often do we see representations of those with stammers in mainstream culture? Rarely, if ever. Yet when it is a disability which can strip away someones ability to do something that so many of us take for granted – to be able to speak, it is so important that this is brought to light. Just A Few Words combines stark minimalism with great comic moments and an emotionally resonant story. A powerful and engaging piece.

Just A Few Words is running at The Other Room Theatre until the 16th February 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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Blue : Review – Thursday 7th February 2019, Chapter Arts Centre

Blue is a brilliant slow burning drama which is funny and heartbreaking in equal measures.

★★★★★

Created by Rebecca Jade Hammond and written by Rhys Warrington, Blue tells the story of a family in a small coastal town in Camarthenshire teetering on the edge of collapse. It is a beautifully written and dynamically acted production which begins like a kitchen sink drama, but turns into an emotional and poignant statement about caring for those you love and the devastating impact this can have. Warrington’s script is a well written, naturalistic piece which is down to earth and witty, yet packs a raw emotional edge. An original piece of writing, the show premieres in Chapter Art’s Centre before going on to run in London.

Feisty Elin (Sophie Melville) has returned home from living in London, and has bumped into Thomas (Jordan Bernarde) – who she used to know when he was a student teacher at her college. Following a bereavement in his family, Thomas has moved back to Wales too, and the two embark on a booze fueled plan to hook up. Yet things don’t run quite as smoothly as planned, and they are interrupted by Elin’s brother Huw (Gwydion Rhys) and mother Lisa (Nia Roberts). Early scenes are light and comedic, being deftly handled by the cast and by director Chelsea Gillard. Before long this comedy turns into confusion and a comedy or errors, as Lisa misinterprets Thomas’ attendance as Elin trying to set him up with her reclusive brother.

The family find themselves at an awkwardly formal dinner; Elin plays footsie with Thomas under the table, while overbearing matriarch Lisa is attempting to play matchmaker between her son and the visitor. Yet Huw is so painfully socially awkward, that the topic of conversation soon drifts on to his favourite game (Minecraft) and his best friend (Skywalker44 – real name James). Thomas’ sexuality is left intentionally ambiguous – he makes out with Elin at the beginning of the play, yet is clearly affectionate towards Huw. Whether this is more out of politeness, or if there is a mutual attraction between them is never made clear, and this is one of the driving plot points throughout.

Hanging over the whole play is the figure of Elin and Huw’s father. Never seen or even heard on stage, his presence nonetheless is a constant vein of tension and drama throughout. Lisa is clearly grieving and her reminiscing about a necklace he gave her, or how they met, suggests that in some form he is no longer with them. Yet when we discover where her husband is, the unveiling is heartbreaking. It is here that Blue suddenly reveals itself to be much more than just a simple drama, but a poigniant message about the cost (both emotional and literal) of caring for those who you love when they are no longer there.

Featuring a stellar cast, it is difficult to pick out a standout performance in Blue. Each cast member helps bring a different element through their character, whether that is the charming and charismatic Thomas (Bernarde), the neurotic Lisa (Roberts) or the chronically shy Huw (Rhys). The interplay and dynamics between the characters have been excellent developed, and Gillard uses her skills as a director to tease out the tensions between them, as well as creating a production with enough shades of dark and light to keep the audience hooked. There is some beautiful imagery in the production, from Thomas smoking out on the doorstep of the house, to the final image of the show where Lisa symbolically lets go of her pain. If handled incorrectly this final image could have felt cheesy or over dramatic, yet here it is the fitting finale to a powerful production. Blue is a brilliant slow burning drama which is funny and heartbreaking in equal measures.

 

Blue is running at Chapter Arts Centre until the 16th February 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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Space Cadette by Laurie Black : Review – Tuesday 5th February 2019, The Other Room @ Porters Cardiff

Laurie Black’s supreme musical talent misses its true potential in this one woman narrative cabaret show

★★★☆☆

The Earth has fallen apart, and Laurie Black has decided to run away to the moon. All aboard Black’s spaceship as we join her on her mission to escape the planet and become the first woman to land on the moon (yes, really). This show is only her second appearance in the Welsh capital, the first being last year’s excellent Laurie Black: Live, which finished of the Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival. This is Black’s first full length narrative show, and while her musical talent is clear for all to see, perhaps this isn’t the right show or the right space to fully demonstrate that.

Cabaret can be a rambunctious affair; encouraging singalongs, drinking and audience participation. Despite being located in a popular city centre bar, The Other Room is a space most known for serious drama. As you enter, ushers remind you to turn off your phone and that there will be no re-admittance. This theatre etiquette is absolutely standard for most venues, yet doesn’t work for this show. Early on, Black encourages audience members to take pictures and video’s, to leave the room and come back with a drink (as long as they also buy her one) – sadly the conventions of ‘normal’ theatre prevail and the audience stay seated throughout. It is a show that might work better in the main space of the bar itself, where drinking and audience participation would be more easily encouraged. Sadly instead Black finds herself battling against theatrical norms which stifle what should be a rowdy affair.

Laurie is undoubtedly an incredibly talented musician. Switching effortlessly between a standard keyboard, a synthesizer and a drum machine while singing and chatting with the audience is no mean feat, and early numbers like the anti-love song brilliantly combine samples of classic songs combined with millennial references (I’d swipe left on you forever until I got RSI, again). Yet the narrative thread that holds these songs together isn’t as strong as it could be, and the songs don’t feel as sparkly or imaginative as Laurie’s other work. It is telling that one of the strongest songs in the show is Moonshine, a song from a previous show which uses clever and imaginative word play, rather than bad puns. Often the songs in Space Cadette boil down to moon/space based puns, which feels like a cheap way to get laughs. Black leaves plenty of time after these puns for laughter, yet little materializes. It could be that the small audience weren’t quite on side enough with her, or it could be that the puns aren’t as funny as black believed them to be when writing the show.

Space Cadette is the first production in The Other Room’s Spring Fringe season, and it is refreshing that the venue is experimenting with shows outside their normal ‘style’ of serious drama. The rest of the season looks to hold a varied selection of work from both local artists and those based further away, and is a brilliant platform to showcase diverse artists. Yet here it feels like the pairing doesn’t quite work. It’s not clear if the show itself is somewhat lacking, or if the black box style isn’t the right type of venue for it, but either way Space Cadette sadly falls short of the mark.

Space Cadette is running at The Other Room Theatre until the 8th February 2019. For more information and tickets click here

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My year in review(s) 2018

The rambling thoughts of a reviewer on the Cardiff/Wales arts scene in 2018.

I’d just like to preface this lengthy article with a brief explanation. I’m not (and don’t pretend to be) a professional writer or reviewer. This page was started back in 2014 as a hobby, and since then I’ve written reviews about a huge variety of things from television and films to restaurants, live music and books. I find the process of writing critically about things a useful way of deciphering my own thoughts about what I’ve experienced and putting it down in a concise way. There are those in the Cardiff scene who write much more eloquently than I do, or have a much more in depth knowledge of the arts. I’m not pretending that my opinion is definitive, or indeed always right.

Hopefully my reviews are fair, and where I have found problems I can justify them to a reasonable level. Over the last 12 months the audience for my blog has expanded hugely, and have been lucky enough to have been invited to review a huge range of different productions, from those at the Cardiff Fringe Theatre Festival, to huge events at the WMC, to full production runs at established theatres or Fringe theatre venues. To all those producers, press officers and reviewing sites that have given me the opportunity to do this, I am eternally grateful. I am always willing to come along and give my thoughts on a production or event, and I hope to carry on doing so in 2019.

This article aims to give my general thoughts on the state of the Cardiff art’s scene (especially in relation to reviewing), as well as addressing some specific issues encountered over the last 12 months. I will, where appropriate, discuss specific events or companies involved but want to stress that this is not with the aim of criticising individuals or companies, but instead of opening up the conversation about the arts scene with the aim of improving things.

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Cardiff is a small capital city, yet has a vibrant creative arts scene. We attract world class talent through the BBC and ITV studios in television and film production, and  we have some big nationally recognised theatre producing venues whose work tours the country and wins national awards. We also have some excellent small fringe theatre companies who work incredibly hard and produce brilliant work on an incredibly small budget. It is the mid-size work in Cardiff which feels like it is currently lacking – that which is too big for a cafe/bar venue, but not quite big enough for the Sherman or WMC. It could be that there is a lack of infrastructure or established ways in which small companies can expand and find a larger audience both in Cardiff and in the areas around them.

Places like the Sherman are attempting to redress the balance with schemes such as “Get It While It’s Hot”, which gives a larger stage to emerging theatre companies. Their work with Clocktower Theatre Company on Shed Man in November as well as their work with Spilt Milk Theatre’s Five Green Bottles next April will hopefully demonstrate there is an appetite for emerging companies to gain a larger audience. Similarly, Big Loop Theatre Company’s productions in both Chapter Arts and The Other Room in 2018 are hopefully a sign that the Fringe Theatre scene in Cardiff can provide a springboard to small companies to get a foothold in the medium sized venues in the city.  We have a great network of small fringe venues who are incredible at supporting the city’s arts scene: AJ’s Coffee House, Little Man Coffee & Jacobs Antiques to name but a few. But honestly, we should be getting to the stage where emerging companies are regularly performing in actual theatre venues, rather than coffee shops (no disrespect to those coffee shops, we love you).

One of the benefits of Cardiff being a small city is that it is easy to make work, collaborate and market your shows in a way that’s much more difficult to do in London or Edinburgh. The small size of the arts scene can however also be a disadvantage. Having only a small arts scene means that finding an audience for your shows can be a challenge. As a critic I often find myself seeing and speaking with the same people before/after shows. We turn up to support our fellow producers, writers, directors, actors and designers. Now there is nothing wrong with this – it’s incredibly important for creatives to support their colleagues in their work. It is when the community starts to feel insular and self congratulatory that problems happen. If you are only making work for your friends, or others in the artistic community, then you will struggle to expand your audience and find success.

Part of what needs to happen is for there to be a more honest dialogue between the creators of the work and their creative colleagues. Throughout 2018 I have seen some productions which, while good, were far from perfect. Yet reading fellow critics raving about a show and giving them 4 or 5 stars, I sometimes wondered if we had seen the same production as each other. It is of course difficult when you are asked to review a show in which your friends or colleagues are closely involved. There is a desire to want your friends to succeed, and it is tempting to gloss over any issues and give them a brilliant review. This is likely in part to avoid upsetting them, and partly because you know that a good review can boost ticket sales and make their production a success.

I’m going to be blunt. If you don’ think you can give an honest and unbiased review about a show you have seen because your friends are involved in it, then you shouldn’t be reviewing it. Yes, we all hope our review will help a show sell, but the other side to a critique of a show is to suggest what could be done better. How can we expect the arts scene in Cardiff to improve, if the very people we are asking to review our shows aren’t honest about what can be improved?

I will give two examples over the last 12 months where I have written a review and received wildly different feedback from it (For reasons of professionalism I won’t mention names or productions). In one instance I wrote a review for a production which I felt had potential but was lacking in some areas. The review offered constructive feedback on the areas which could be improved, and the areas which I didn’t feel worked. The next day I was messaged on social media by someone involved in that production telling me that I was wrong and demanding that I change my review. In the other example I wrote a review for a different show which again had real potential, but needed some work done to make it great. Following the publication of that review I was messaged by someone involved thanking me for the feedback and stating they had taken some of it on board and would make some changes.

I hope the above examples demonstrate my point. The creative scene in Cardiff needs to be open to criticism, and reviewers need to be willing to give that feedback. If we pretend that everything we see with our colleagues in is great, or if we deny the fact that what we have created could have been improved, then the arts scene will stagnate. The opinion of a reviewer is exactly that – one persons opinion. But as long as they can justify that opinion then it is a valid one, and if you are putting on a production to the paying public then you should be willing to accept feedback both good and bad. Of course if there are factual inaccuracies in a review (mis-spellings, mis-credits etc.) then as a creative you absolutely should contact the reviewer and ask for this to be changed. As a reviewer we have a duty to ensure we credit the right people, and are accurate.

Telling someone you know as a friend or respect as an artist that you have problems with what they’ve created isn’t going to be an easy conversation. It’s much easier to pat them on the back in the bar afterwards and tell them how great you think it was. There is of course a right way and a wrong way to give that feedback – I’m not suggesting you go up to someone in the foyer after the curtain call and bluntly tell them how terrible you think their show was. That’s likely to end in a bruised ego and possibly a black eye. But if we are more open with each other about our work, and open up that dialogue in a constructive way then the Cardiff arts scene can only get better.

I want to take a second to commend one particular company for their stance on receiving criticism. Big Loop Theatre Company wrote a post on social media asking for all feedback good and bad for their current production of Cheer, admiting that “It’s always lovely to see glowingly positive tweets and posts but, for a new company like ours, honest and open feedback is equally valuable! Tell us what has worked, what hasn’t, what made you nauseous. We can take it. We promise.” Since then, they have posted and shared links to all reviews regardless of rating and having had conversations with the team personally, it’s clear they want to learn and progress from the criticism they have received.

Now that I’ve delivered my general thoughts on reviewing, I will delve into two specific issues which have affected the Wales art’s scene over the last twelve months. I will caveat this discussion by stating that I’m no expert on either case, and am writing from the perspective of an outsider who passionately cares about improving the scene. I will also state that  I’m not aiming to discuss the issue itself as they have already been covered extensively by others, but instead the organisation/scene’s reaction to the case. I am of course talking about the open letters submitted by writers and actors to National Theatre Wales, and separately the controversy surrounding the (now disbanded) Wales Theatre Awards.

Lets start with the National Theatre Wales issue. In September of this year a group of 40 writers penned an open letter to its chair Clive Jones, in which they criticized the output of the company and in particular the fact that they have in recent productions used non Welsh/Wales based artists in their work. This was followed by an open letter from 200 Welsh/Wales based actors who aired similar grievances but from the perspective of performers. If we want to have a high quality national theatre which nurtures home grown talent and represents Welsh culture, then these are vital conversation to have. As a nationally funded arts organisation NTW have rightly responded to these letters by inviting those involved to discussions regarding their concerns. While I don’t know the outcome of these discussions I  commend NTW’s transparent response, and in particular their artistic director Kully Thiarai’s blog on the issue. Only by addressing and discussing issues with those creatives involved in an honest and transparent way do we stand any hope of learning from the mistakes of the past.

This response contrasts hugely to that of the Wales Theatre Awards when they became embroiled in a racism row this year. While many are familiar with the background of this, I will briefly and clumsily explain for those who are not. In short, a play nominated for the 2018 Wales Theatre Awards called “Golden Dragon” featured white actors portraying Chinese characters in “yellowface”. This led to an open letter (we seem to like these in Wales) criticising its nomination on the grounds of the companies casting decision, and to NTW and others boycotting the awards. Rather than engage with the issue or accept any responsibility, awards organiser Mike Smith stated the accusations were “so obviously plain silly they do not deserve a response”. More recently, respected critic Jafar Iqbal wrote an article in which he spoke about the controversy, and rightly stated that the whole episode was somewhat swept under the carpet. While some did boycott the night, it went ahead and (until recently) there were plans for another event in 2019.

So the organisers of the Wales Theatre Awards had not one, but two chances to meaningfully engage in debate; to apologise for what happened, to discuss issues relating to race and casting in the arts. One after the original open letter, and again after Iqbal’s article. On the first occasion this criticism was swept under the rug. But on the second chance, the organisation contacted Iqbal’s organisation via Gary Raymond threatening legal action. That’s right, legal action. Rather than meaningfully engage, WTA felt it necessary to threaten Wales Art’s Review into silence. After this erupted on social media, WTA abruptly decided to cancel next year’s ceremony with the message “Wales Theatre Awards 2019 has been cancelled and the annual awards have come to an end”. Ironically, still available on the website is the following sentence about next year’s (now defunct) awards which says “The Awards are now also a catalyst for a wider conversation in Wales such as this year when it opened a debate on diversity and also ethnicity matching in casting.”. So the organisers of this event claimed that the awards have opened up a debate, despite denying themselves the opportunity to discus the issue on two separate occasions.

What can be learned from the different reactions to these two issues? In the example of the conversation about NTW, a group of artists and creatives asked to open a dialogue, with the organisation itself responding and opening up the debate. While there is an argument to be had as to whether an open letter was the right way of doing so, it is clear that there was strong feelings about the issue.  Certainly the format of an open letter allowed the signatories to gain enough publicity to catapult the issue into the consciousness of the creative industry in a way which private conversations would not have done. As mentioned before, these conversations are apparently still ongoing, and here’s to hoping that in 2019 NTW takes the feedback on board. We want world class theatre here in Wales, and by engaging constructively in this type of debate we will hopefully advance our cause.

On the other hand, the Wales Theatre Awards controversy leaves no-one looking good. WTA look bad for their initial AND subsequent handling of the controversy. Those arts organisations who attended the awards look bad for not standing up and boycotting a ceremony which actively celebrated a production who’s casting decisions were racist. And the rest of us look bad for ignoring the issue for nearly a year, until it took a brutally honest article from Iqbal to launch this back into our conversations. If you were one of those who boycotted/brought up this issue at the time of the 2018 awards, well done. But don’t congratulate yourselves too much. This issue deserved to be shouted about as loudly (if not louder) than the NTW issue. If we can’t get the basics right about race, then any more nuanced conversations about Welsh theatre and identity are doomed to fail.

So what do I hope next year holds for the Cardiff/Wales theatre scene?  Here’s to hoping 2019 see’s more small/fringe companies moving on to the next stage of their progression. To see them creating more work in medium sized venues, and to those venues being open to helping nurture their talent. If these companies are to be the future of the scene, they need to be given the space to showcase their work. I also hope that we as a scene can be more honest with ourselves about what is good, but also what needs to be improved. I hope that we can be more vocal in calling out issues when they arise, in a constructive and timely fashion. Most of all I hope that we can learn the lessons from what”s happened in 2018, and get back to what we should be doing. Working our socks off to create amazing theatre, or supporting those who do.

Happy Christmas/Holidays, here’s to 2019!

 

Luke Seidel-Haas

(Whiplash Review)

Cheer: Review – Thursday 29th November 2018, by Big Loop Theatre Company, @ The Other Room, Porter’s Cardiff

A clever concept with strong writing, design elements and performances, sadly let down by its length.

★★★1/2

The season for festivities is almost upon us, and The Other Room give us their annual alternative Christmas offering. Following on from last years’ The Alternativity, this year it’s the turn of up and coming Cardiff based theatre company Big Loop with their offering Cheer. Set in a horrific dystopian society where consumerism has reached its logical extreme, Christmas itself is controlled by the Government through extortionately priced Christmas Licences. Those who can afford these are entitled to exclusive access to Christmas districts and enforced festivities, while those who can’t are forced to find black market alternatives. Jules (Alice Downing) works in the back room of a pub making counterfeit licences to sell to those dreaming of the Christmas denied to them. Meanwhile Todd (Cory Tucker), a down and out addict, is desperate to secure one of these at any cost.

Like Black Mirror crossed with a Dickensian nightmare, Cheer cleverly extrapolates the excesses of modern day Christmas into a nightmarish scenario which is far removed from our current situation and yet draws intelligent parallels about the desires of people to want more and more. Yet it seems the grass is not always greener on the other side; Todd may crave the Christmas he has seen others experiencing, and resorts to the synthetic hallucinogen ‘Cheer’ in order to get the festive buzz, while Jules has a past which suggest that life as one of the ‘haves’ is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Written by Big Loop’s Kitty Hughes, Cheer is cleverly written and manages to encapsulate the company’s trademark playfulness, before descending into something rather more dark and twisted. Scenes where the duo begin to take ‘Cheer’ manage to be both hilarious and heart breaking as we see Todd desperately wanting to know what ‘real’ Christmas feels like. Similarly the music and sound effects used complement these scenes well, helping us understand the effect these drugs are having on the pair. The message behind this is clear – consumerism forces those who have to want more, and those who don’t to want – regardless of need or ability to pay. People at Christmas run themselves into mountains of debt which they spend months or years paying off, all to feel like they’re doing Christmas “right”. While it is presented as an absurd extreme, Cheer clearly demonstrates the dangers of the trap that so many find themselves in during the month of December.

The main issue with Cheer is unfortunately its length. Running at nearly 90 minutes, it feels unnecessarily bloated. Scenes where Jules and Todd trip, or argue continue a little too long, and this causes them to lose their impact. The company could afford to trim the play by 20 minutes or so, and this would create a more streamlined and snappy show. As it stands the show is overly stuffed with long scenes or speeches which, while well written, are overly long. The chemistry between actors Tucker and Downing is excellent, and it’s clear to see the pair have worked together well throughout, but occasionally the pair struggle to maintain the energy and dynamics through these scenes. With Cheer, Big Loop have created a clever concept with strong writing, design elements and performances, sadly let down by its length.

Cheer  is running at The Other Room Theatre until 15th November 2018. For more information and tickets click here.

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Photo by Tess Seymour

Shed Man: Review – Tuesday 13th November 2018 , by Clock Tower Theatre Company @ Sherman Theatre

Kevin Jones is clearly on the way up in the Cardiff arts scene, but unfortunately Shed Man doesn’t prove to be his third triumph in nearly as many weeks. 

★★★☆☆

‘Get It While It’s Hot’ is a brand new scheme by the Sherman Theatre to help emerging South Wales based theatre companies perform in a professional venue with the support of an award winning producing theatre. For the pretty reasonable price of £12.50, you as a punter get a pie, a pint and a play – a bargain for an evenings entertainment. First up is Clock Tower Theatre’s Shed Man, written by Kevin Jones. Having recently had plays produced at both AJ’s Coffe House (Izzy’s Manifestos) and The Other Room (Cardiff Boy)it’s clear that this writer is running on something of a hot streak. But how will his writing fare in the larger space of the Sherman studio?

On a hot bank holiday weekend, Brian (Benedict Hurley) decides to build a shed, a place to store his ‘stuff’ (whatever that might mean). The wrong side of 40, miserable in his job and feeling overwhelmed by life, Brian clearly feels like creating his own private oasis will help him cope. As Brian attempts to piece together his shed, he becomes increasingly distracted by his mother Pat (Siw Hughes) and his boss, the overbearing Mr Tatum (Joe Burke). Taunted for not being able to provide for his family, for being a disappointment and an embarrassment, Brian eventually reaches boiling point.

Utilising a set of green astro-turf, a classic looking white picket fence and a rather easily assembled shed, Shed Man starts life feeling like a naturalistic drama about a man on the edge of loosing it all, before beginning to stray into more surreal almost Pinter-esque territory. It transpires that not all of what occurs on stage is quite as it seems, yet this reveal feels a little jarring. While both Siw Hughes’ performance as Pat and Joe Burke’s performance as Mr Tatum are individually good, their different methods of playing the roles don’t mesh into the style of drama coherently. Burke’s character becomes a more and more outrageous caricature of what Brian imagines his boss to be, while Hughes’ character remains almost identical throughout.

As Brian struggles to cope, Shed Man’s real troubles appear. The play attempts to grapple with mental health issues, yet its portrayal of this is unfortunately a little ham-fisted. Rather than creating a nuanced portrayal of someone who lives with a mental health condition, the play relies on well-worn tropes and theatrical conventions  in an attempt to portray a man teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Benedict Hurley has the overwhelming majority of the heavy lifting (both literally and emotionally) to do during Shed Man, and while he is generally convincing, it is a huge weight to carry when compared to the rest of the cast. Overall, the play  sometimes feels like it’s running at 75%, when it has the potential with a little tweaking to truly fly. Kevin Jones is clearly on the way up in the Cardiff arts scene, but unfortunately Shed Man doesn’t prove to be his third triumph in nearly as many weeks.

Shed  Man  is running at the Sherman Theatre until 17h November 2018. For more information and tickets click here

If you enjoyed reading this review, please like, comment or share it. If you’d like to see more reviews, click the follow button in the bottom right hand corner to get regular updates from Whiplash Review.