I was part of a full house in the Media Centre Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre to see a script-in-hand “On The Edge” presentation of “Love Forty”, an early play by Wales’ most popular playwright, Frank Vickery, dubbed the “Ayckbourn of the Valleys”; although this piece strays into Bergman territory, being a dissection of a forty-year middle-class marriage which was entered into cold-bloodedly. Producer-director Michael Kelligan, and Anwen Williams are Ralph (deceptively jolly) and Marcia (prickly and sarcastic), preparing to attend their Ruby Wedding celebration; they co-exist and increasingly interact with their younger, identically-dressed selves – James Aston and Naomi Martell. Despite some self-consciously laboured metaphors, and an ending which appears to verge on the glib (or maybe it was just rushed), the piece was both affecting and amusing. The author avoided the irritating phenomenon (fairly common in radio drama) where long-married characters have the kind of conversations which, realistically, would have to have occurred years before (“You mean you almost married Jim?”), since non-communication is inherent to the relationship; there were a couple of instances of “What’s that supposed to mean?”, however, which, in my view, is always worth taking the trouble to avoid.
Almost a century has passed since J O Francis’ intense domestic drama was first seen yet its central theme of a family ripped apart by social, political, cultural and economic change rings true to us down the generations.
Add to this acting of quite remarkable passion and utter conviction in this rehearsed reading and this offering from the On the Edge, State of the Nation season, had the audience literally on the edge of their seats.
The story is of a mining family in the Rhondda just before the First World War, when coal was king but the mining communities were its serfs. But change is in the air with the rash of strikes, the burgeoning Labour movement, and political rather than pulpit oration offering salvation.
On the family scene we have a hard working God fearing father John Price, played by Gwyn Vaughan-Jones with a wonderful combination of strength and vulnerability. He has made sacrifices throughout his life so his sons can have the education and chances he never had. His sole ambition is to have one of his sons become the minister – the accolade of success. His wife is played by Anwen Williams and a more moving and exhausting performance I have rarely seen. She has a simpler ambition, to have her family around her.
But these are changing times. One son Gwilym played as a gentle yet deeply observant child by Leon Davies has consumption and is to live with a relation in Australia. Another son John Henry, sympathetically played by a Richard Shackley, turns his back on the ministry and chooses, shame of it, the stage. The third son Lewis, played with fire in soul by Gareth John Bale, chooses firebrand politics as his religion. John Price has the preacher son he always wanted but with socialism rather than Christianity his message.
The lodger Sam Thatcher (ironically appropriate surname for a play about struggling mining communities) is played by Lee Mengo as the outsider, a disabled rover from Canning Town whose mantra is to go with the flow.
Set against a montage of actual industrial disputes including confrontations with strike-breaking soldiers, the plot follows the break up of the family as the father cannot understand his children’s values in the changing society. One by one they depart leaving their mother a broken woman.
Yes, the symbolism of the characters seems a little heavy handed and obvious to us today but remember there are still plays and musicals even still being written that follow what over the following century has become a hackneyed and clichéd dramatic convention in Welsh drama.
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.