I attended the Chapter performance of the latest in the On The Edge“Deadlier Than The Male” season of work by female playwrights :- “Gryfhead” by Lucy Gough, an everyday story of boy meets girl, girl’s brother kills boy, girl digs up boy’s body and keeps his head in the fridge. Based on a story from Boccaccio, via Keats, it starred Katy Owen as the feisty heroine, James Ashton as the unfortunate lover, Robert Harper as the unhinged, thuggish brother, and Alastair Sill as the Poet who alternates between observing, devising and participating in events, ultimately losing control of his creations, as Ella inconveniently refuses to fade prettily away. Less densely poetic than previous Lucy Gough plays that I’ve seen, “Gryfhead” is a grippingly gruesome tale of female empowerment set in a sink-estate/Grimm fairytale landscape (although it could probably have worked without the lupine trimmings). Despite the inevitable, distracting moments of awkwardness involving the juggling of scripts and props, this being a semi-staged reading, director Sita Calvert-Ennals kept things moving, striking a good balance between tragedy and absurdism. I went expecting edification, and ended up being thoroughly entertained.
Welsh Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit, mocked the Guardian headline-writer when Ed Thomas’s play was first produced by The Royal Court in London, neatly conflating their Cymrophobia, their bourgeois suspicion of lyrical language and their celebration of being an unashamed Londoncentic arbiter of cultural taste – rabbit being one of those famously cockney rhyming-slang words for talking too much.
It was also, I think, the last time the paper correctly used the phrase Welsh Rabbit, albeit out of context, rather than the silly gentrification Welsh Rarebir which is now favoured in their food pages and elsewhere. Again, its denial of the social-history implications of the Welsh having to pretend cheese on toast is as good as the native rabbit which the English squires denied them, is part and parcel of the colonial mindset that helps explain which English (unlike Scots or European) critics just never got Ed Thomas.
It’s ironic because, as this modest revival of Gas Station Angel as a script-in-hand production reminds us, Ed Thomas’s plays are all about being Welsh and the tribulations therein.
We are reminded, too, of Thomas’s whirling and whimsical use of words and (like other Welsh playwrights) his fascination with the Underworld and that thin line between so-called normality and insanity, the world in which many of us live, the world of the imagination – and the right to live in that world.
After all, “to be Welsh in the twenty-first century you’ve got to have imagination,” says one of the characters in a line that seems at first like a self-deprecating joke but which resonates much more.
It’s a tale of two families, neither of which might be considered conventional.
Ace and his parents live in a house about to collapse into the sea and his mam gets the fairies mixed up with the men from the council.
Bron lives with her family not far away: one brother who loses it and disappears, another who confesses to being a psychopathic sheep-killer, another who is simply simple-minded and a dad whose darts don’t reach the dart-board any more.
Ace and Bron are the Romeo and Juliet figures whose story just might hold out hope for the future if they could only get past the secrets and lies of the past – familiar Ed Thomas territory.
The problem is that a play like this needs a totally committed cast, one that understands Thomas’s sense of humour, his metaphors, his lyrical pace and, in this ad hoc company, none really has had the chance. The constraints of these On The Edge readings, with only a couple of days’ rehearsal, also means that any sense of ensemble – absolutely crucial here – is absent.
It looked and sounded as if this admittedly complex script defeated director Michael Kelligan and most of the actors in terms of the narrative (it goes back and forth in time), the rhythms, the characterisation, the comedy and the tragedy. There are some good moments but they are few and far between.
Those that aren’t familiar with Thomas’s work would, I suspect, be puzzled on this evidence and those that are would have a job persuading anyone that this is indeed a marvellous play, all about identity and family and selective memory and love and imagination and, fundamentally, about Wales at the start of a new era.
For the allegories to work, we must first accept the reality of the characters and situations – and we can’t here. Despite some gallant attempts to find in the short time allotted some sense in this multilayered epic the company offers neither realism nor anything deeper.