Peter Stead takes a look at the latest offering from the National Theatre of Wales
The National Theatre of Wales are now into the second half of their twelve show debut season which has been specifically aimed at finding new audiences and demonstrating that good plays can be effectively staged at venues and spaces that will surprise and intrigue those who attend. For their seventh show the we were invited to Hobo’s, a nightclub in the centre of Bridgend, to see Love Steals Us From Loneliness, a new work by Gary Owen.
Undoubtedly this was the most keenly anticipated production of the National Theatre season. This was a billing that was taking us to the heart of the matter. A playwright who has already brilliantly examined the way in which young people relate and talk to each other in contemporary Wales was returning to his home patch in the aftermath of a national debate on what had appeared to be a spate of suicides amongst the young people of Bridgend.
Of course, young people live in a different country and those of us who choose to visit it need a skilful guide. In Love Steals Us Gary Owen takes us into a Bridgend graveyard to meet two teenagers who have momentarily escaped from a boozy Halloween celebration. There follows an hour of the most intense, revealing and yet hilarious dialogue ever performed in Wales. Mark Sumner plays a virgin, Scott, hitherto confused about his sexuality, who realises that this moment with his best-friend’s girlfriend is potentially the most important in his life. As the drunken conversation develops we, too, begin to share his fascination with this “sexy witch”.
As Catrin the Bridgend-born actress Katie Elin-Salt magnificently brings alive the whole world that teenagers inhabit. She knows everything there is to know about sex, emotion and passion. She is capable of coruscating and dismissive judgements on the sexual appeal, preferences and style of everyone in the known world. Where, we wonder, does this confidence and certainty come from. Thinking back to one’s own innocent adolescence one remembers so many inhibitions and so much ignorance which left us with time to talk about politics, sport, religion and teachers. Now we have Katie Elin-Salt employing the most authentic ‘Valleys’ accent (her ‘yeeouw’ lasts a few seconds) and superb timing to sort Scott out and to legislate as to what is right and proper in the teenage world of Bridgend.
After this heady and intoxicating hour one wondered where the second half would take us – at one performance a couple left thinking the one-act show was over. We were in for surprises. It turns out that the graveyard meeting at Halloween was to have direct and fatal consequences for Catrin’s boyfriend Lee (whom we never meet) whilst Scott, having made clear his love for Catrin, subsequently found happiness in a gay relationship.
Eventually Catrin comes forward to reveal her guilt. She feels that Lee’s death was directly occasioned by what happened with Scott at Halloween. This sounds as if it should be the play’s great moment but it is not. Gary Owen has moved on and, eschewing melodrama and soap opera, he embarks on an examination of the consequences of loss.
The second half of the play is dominated by two great performances. The mother and sister of the dead Lee live together and yet have to cope with their great loss in their own ways. Their only shared communication comes when the daughter asks whether she should “go for chips”. As the sister Becky, Remy Beasley offers us a full and multi-faceted portrait of coping, keeping the show on the road, and eventually graduating and forging a career and yet wanting to return to the home and the ties that bind.
As the mother, Nia Roberts takes us away from the teenage world into that of the single parent who has lost a teenage son. Presumably still only in her late thirties, Mags nevertheless has the tragic demeanour of the classic ageing and careworn widow and yet she is young enough to be enjoying life to the full. Nia Roberts injects almost unbearable anguish into this part and Gary Owen has given her lines and stage business that are as profoundly expressive of loss as any I have encountered in drama since the plays of D.H. Lawrence.
Love Steals Us was staged in conjunction with the Sherman Theatre, simply and effectively designed by Neil Davies and Anna-Marie Hainsworth and directed the National Theatre’s artistic director John E. McGrath. It was reported that a London critic arriving at Bridgend and walking through the town was surprised to find not dereliction but a proper place with neat pedestrianised streets and Georgian buildings.
Walking back to the station I reflected that Bridgend could stand as a microcosm both of what Wales is and could be. The Valleys are adjacent, there are prosperous suburbs and outlying villages and there is an attractive and inviting town centre. The streets were deserted that evening, although the Italian restaurant was doing good trade. Nonetheless, a young audience had seen some of their peers vividly and challengingly delineating the dilemmas of our times. During rehearsals the members of the company had mingled with the people of Bridgend and subsequently the play was analysed in workshops and on-line. Into the hedonism, indulgence and confusion of contemporary urban life the our new National Theatre has injected the possibility of debate and understanding. We need to enrich life in those streets. Courtesy of Gary Owen and first-rate acting the National Theatre has blazed a trail we all need to follow.