Another National Theatre Wales stormer – blending music with theatre, mixing a rock star with luvvies on a night full of delights.
In March, NTW’s DeGabay, celebrating Cardiff’s Somali community just yards away from this venue, was a good idea that didn’t quite work. It lacked cohesion and focus.
This was a much tighter, pacier and dynamic effort. Don’t watch the video if you want to attend the gig without any preconceptions or knowledge of what is to come. The more surprises the better. You might not want to read on either, if you intend to go and see the show and prefer your surprises first hand.
In a nondescript warehouse on Curran Road, Cardiff, painted green and looking like a lock-up for white goods, the red National Theatre Wales battlebus, a shipping container housing a shop selling revolutionary tracts, a bar and a Mr Softee ice-cream van (I hate that stuff) were the only evidence of what was to come.
A woman with a megaphone climbed up on top of the bus to announce an insurrectionary night ahead and we herded inside the building to be see piles of red books on top of filing cabinets in a bunker-like room. Any red book would do. I flipped one open at random – it was Percy Thrower‘s guide to gardening.
Ten minutes later, a false wall was revealed, a thrill rippled through the 400 audience members, and we walked through to the ‘gig’. The band were on a stage set and actors being wheeled around on mobile blocks to perform scenes in and among us.
The story was performed with a cartoonish relish – the tale of an Italian millionaire communist who met Castro, Che Guevara and the CIA.
It could have been naff and pretentious but the story was told simply and without being didactic or preachy, which was just as well. The music added to the mood of the scenes and it was the actors who were the focus of most of our attention.
I’d expected the music to take centre stage – that didn’t really happen. Gruff Rhys, obviously the star of the show just by reputation, stayed out of much of the limelight – this is no rock star’s ego trip – though of course he was central to some of the action.
He is quite clearly committed to NTW and was in the street audience at the DeGabay event on a cold March Sunday, unobtrusively mooching around the Docks with the rest of us.
Everyone was in on the action. At one point, audience members were passing round a contraband book as Communist Party members searched for it, pushing through the crowd.
A rumbustious Fidel Castro and a swaggering Che Guevara were played for laughs, and the slapstick nature of much of the action meant Feltrinelli’s sad demise had no real emotional impact. Much of it felt like a very clever arty pantomime.
The music evoked the 80s synth heyday. Almost expected a Tears for Fears riff to explode into the story. It was subtle and rarely overpowering. Technically the show was marvellous – the audience stood throughout and had to move around nimbly to see scenes next to us, then above us, then behind us. All of it masterfully choreographed.
Anyone who saw last year’s NTW’s incredible Coriol/anus at St Athan – one of the best shows I’ve ever seen – will already be familiar with the approach.
Gruff Rhys, I’m told, is a relation. My first cousins – Bowen-Reeses from Ogmore – say they met him at a family funeral. They didn’t really now who he was (‘His name’s Gruff,’ they said, pronouncing it as the English adjective rather than the Welsh ‘Griff’)’.
So, anyway, let’s claim him as a relative on their say-so.
A splendidly surreal, even enjoyably silly, evening. The sort of show well worth visiting twice to see the little bits you missed first time round.
All in all, a perfect night out.