Jonathan Miller once wittily remarked that “I wouldn’t concentrate the National Theatre in one place any more than I would concentrate the National Health Service all at St Thomas’s Hospital.” So he must be delighted that, in these devolved times, an imaginatively run and artistically successful National Theatre of Scotland has sprung up and that this outfit has now been joined by the new National Theatre of Wales whose inaugural production opened last Friday. The National Theatre of Great Britain and Northern Ireland sends shows out on tour from its South Bank bunker, but its youthful counterparts in Scotland and Wales have the edge on it in that respect. Given that they are not being building-based as a point of principle, as well as because of financial exigencies, touring is their life’s blood.
And so it was that the National Theatre of Wales kicked off not in some swanky “centre of excellence” but in the small Welsh town of Blackwood in a building, now the local hub of the arts, that is still called the Miners’ Institute in honour of the fact that miners paid a penny a week for its construction. The NTW has had the inspiring notion of presenting a new production a month in its first year of operation and some of these are culturally pretty glamorous. There is going to be a custom-built new translation of Aeschylus’ seminal war play, The Persians, in a mid-Wales military complex: The Devil |Inside Him, an as-yet-unperformed play by the original Angry Young Man, John Osborne in Cardiff; and the brilliant actor Michael Sheen, a son of Port Talbot, is returning to join forces with poet Owen Sheer in a contemporary take on the town’s community Passion Play.
I’m ashamed to say that, up to and including the preliminaries (some rehearsed argy-bargy on the Institute steps where it was hard to differentiate the audience from the “plants”), I thought that A Good Night Out in the Valleys was not going to be a good piece to programme for the opening shot. Rather than sending forth an eloquent statement of intent, wouldn’t this piece just deafen you with the roar of instant feedback? But, thanks to the excellent acting, the canny production values, and my growing appreciation of the ulterior motives, I was, by the interval, entirely won over by the piece. About to embark on a tour, the piece does what it says on the tin – it offers a good night out in the valleys (there’s a band, bingo, likeably icky gags from a has-been compere) while examining why the culture that gave rise to such community japes and jollities is endangered and perhaps rightly so.
Moving forward in captioned sketch-like episodes, with the use of background video and song, the piece, fluently directed by artistic chief, John E McGrath, reminded me not so much of Under Milk Wood as of Jim Cartwright’s Road, which updated Dylan Thomas with it 1980s poetic protest at lives flung on the post-industrial scrapheap. The through-line on which the episodes are pegged out like washing follows the return in young manhood of Kyle, a boy with bitter memories of his family being ostracised and banished after his father became a scab in the 1984 miners’ strike. He’s now working for a mineral company and could green-light an excavation that would destroy the Institute where his father was once MC and his usurper, Boyd Clack’s excellent Con. The show has bags of resilient humour (the plunger for unblocking the ladies’ loo could be its mascot) and also an unforced poetic eye as it contemplates the dust in the air that sometimes catches the sun, symbolising nostalgia for the old ways, the cruel death from silicosis of a former miner, and the need to move on.
Touring to 27 March (029 2035 3070; www.nationaltheatrewales.org)Reuse content