The Dark Philosophers: Drunken lechery, murder, sex and religion in the Valleys

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The Independent Culture

A comedy set in South Wales featuring drunken lechery, murder, sex and religion might not sound like a bundle of laughs. But in the hands of the late comic writer, Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981), a Welsh national treasure who chronicled the Valleys, even the worst case scenarios are made funny.

The Dark Philosophers, a co-production between Told By An Idiot and National Theatre Wales, weaves together several of Thomas' short stories from 1946, with biographical elements including a re-enactment of a TV interview with Michael Parkinson. "Thomas wrote black comedies in a plural narrative voice akin to a Greek chorus, wailing over the tragedy of South Wales in 1920s and 1930s, including social deprivation, unemployment, even murders. He was as famous as Dylan Thomas, until his writings, like his forming society, were overtaken by a world with which he had little sympathy," says Professor Dai Smith, chair of the Arts Council of Wales, who was a pupil of Thomas' at Barry Grammar School in the 1950s.

Thomas was born in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, and grew up in poverty, the youngest of 12 children. He went on to win a scholarship to Oxford University, before returning to Wales to teach.

His novels include All Things Betray Thee and The World Cannot Hear You while his psychological play The Keep, about a family abandoned by a mother, opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1961, to great acclaim.

Smith recalls how Thomas described his writing as "Chekhov with chips". What was he like? "He was completely unsuited to school-teaching," says Professor Smith. "His nickname was 'killer'; I think partly because he looked a bit like an American gangster in his snap brim hat. Or maybe it was because he killed us with his jokes when he read to us from his short-story collections."

The Riverfront Theatre, Newport (www.toldbyanidiot.org; 01633 656757), 11-13 November; Y Stiwt Theatre, Wrexham (01978 841300), 19-20 November

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