Friday, 10 December 2010


Unprotected by Bethan Marlow
Velvet Ensemble
Venue: Wales Millenium Centre, Weston Studio
Directed by: Sarah Bickerton
Dates: 8th – 9th December 2010
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard
Photographs from

The moment you suddenly realise you are out in the world without mummy and daddy there to hold your hand is a daunting prospect for anyone, more so if you have lived a sheltered life until that point. This is the exactly where we find the innocent Violet (Rhian Blythe), in a new flat that she hopes will allow her a new, more independent life.

The set was a simple raised square, with a ¾ bed and boxes full of Violet’s few possessions. The only way to distinguish outside and inside was through lighting changes that were executed flawlessly. Subtle red lighting was also used in scenes of high tension or passion, although a slightly overused technique it was ideal for laying Violet’s emotions open for all to see. This simplicity suited the performance, highlighting Violet’s isolation and vulnerability.

Rhian Blythe in the poster for Unprotected

Throughout the play we only see two actors even though other people are present and even spoken to in one sided conversations. This choice was brilliant; it exaggerated the sense of Violet being completely alone apart from her strained connection with Tom (Gareth Milton) and helped maintain intensity in the small venue. Having said this the absence of Violet’s parents was slightly odd as we were led to believe that they were over protective and defensive, the fact that they wouldn’t try to get in contact with her, or that she wouldn’t worry about them more is perhaps a slight oversight in characterisation. I could be completely wrong with statement as we soon learn Violet is a compulsive liar and she could in fact have parents who don’t care at all, but then where did she get the money for the flat from?

This is Velvet Ensemble’s first full length production and is also Bethan Marlow’s first English language play (her first language being Welsh). Watching the production you would never guess this; the script is complex and unpredictable much like the character of Violet, the words and direction manage to skirt around clichés and the acting was superb. Due to a combination of these things the characters of Violet and Tom were solid, three dimensional and most importantly believable.

Rhian and Gareth in rehersals

Velvet Ensemble aim to redress the male/female balance in theatre by producing plays that have female lead characters. Although this particular production was very much about Violet’s world we were given great insight into Tom’s motives and at no point was the play anti-male. In fact, of the two, Tom was in many ways more likeable, with Violet being a combination of innocence and unreasonable behaviour that stemmed from her need to please others.  The theatre company have definitely achieved their objective as this project was a brilliant showcase of female talent in all areas, especially Rhian Blythe who was absolutely perfect as oddball Violet with perfect gestures and tone of voice.

Any young woman or indeed man watching the production would be able to take some comfort in the fact that it is ok to fall in love and do silly things. Normality is different for each one of us and everyone has a piece of the eccentric, extrovert side of Violet and the shy, embarrassed qualities of Tom. Hopefully people will also take the message that it is ok to be your true self and that you should never change for anyone.

I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone involved in this production the VERY best. I can’t wait to see more Velvet Ensemble productions and more writing from Bethan Marlow both of which are sure to have brilliant futures.

For more info on Velvet Ensemble visit:

For more reviews and an interview with VE producer V John and writer Bethan Marlow visit:

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Interview with Velvet Ensemble

Written by Rachel Williams
Edited by Chelsey Gillard

Theatre Company Velvet Ensemble is back in the WMC with their first big production; Unprotected. This time as ‘graduates’ of its annual Incubator Project (2009) and we grabbed the chance to talk to its producer Victoria “V” John and writer Bethan Marlow during rehearsals in Cardiff, in an unexpected rehearsal space; rather than in a WMC studio V walked us to an office building around the corner where we settled into sofas out of the cold.
Velvet Ensemble:
Living in a world dominated by male writers and uninteresting female parts V was encouraged by positive, proud, can do women in American theatre: women who freely admit to being feminists. So V brought Velvet Ensemble to life as a theatre company creating productions for and about women, by women. Although they both stress that the male voice is still important - it is just an attempt to address the gender imbalance and to quote V they are not “angry, man hating, bra burning lesbians” but are certainly not afraid of that label, her attitude is that people should come see the plays and let them speak for themselves before she has to defend anything.
We asked V to define Velvet Ensemble, was it aiming to be mainstream? Edgy? To her those words mean little: she doesn’t know the ultimate goal for the company, only that there is no ‘house style’ and she would like to produce a different work every time and that is the main reason for the absence of an Artistic Director.
The Incubator Project, Victoria?
V explained that WMC set up this initiative to nurture new talent, starting with Inc’Ling: where any type of artist; from actor to lighting designer can try out any new idea they have. From here it progresses into the Incubator project which requires a larger, more solid brief/work in progress: giving them rehearsal space and a small bursary. The work is then presented in a one night performance along with other ‘Incubator’ companies/ artists where the audience can provide feedback. For Velvet Ensemble the support provided was incredibly important especially now as they are in co-production with the WMC as part of an ‘Incubator 2’ almost, to develop Unprotected into a full production.
Bethan on Unprotected
It isn’t just the name of the show, Unprotected defines the process of evolution that plays can go through – nothing is safe. With the dates for the show around the corner we asked just how much of the original project and brief had survived and what had grown from it. Out of the original four, only one main character has survived so we only see her part of the story: the best way to concentrate on the central idea. It still carries the same themes: questioning the word “normal” and playing with the word love and peoples fears; our relationship with love, what it is, what it makes you do and how scared we are of it and what it can make you do.
Why should anyone go see Unprotected?
“The people that are involved are phenomenally gifted, are rising stars in Welsh theatre. We are expressing something new and Welsh talent should be supported in Wales”.
Cardiff and being in Wales
V currently lives in London but works between there and Cardiff, the two cities are vastly different, not just in size but in outlook and personality so we asked just what Cardiff’s allure was – away from the bright lights of London’s theatre. London is brilliant but vastly over populated: the spectrum of spectacular theatre to the downright dire is far greater: one is able to go out any night of the week to an array of locations and find a production, whereas in Cardiff’s smaller circle the spectrum is not so wide. Both are hugely passionate about Cardiff and Wales; its theatre scene is burgeoning, the support is far greater and the buzz of a fringe theatre scene has only now begun to stamp its mark outside of the conventional theatre space. They candidly admit it that the environment here is such that if the production was not done here, would not have been done at all.
It’s not a secret
“Theatre is just a job like anything else” and Bethan would be right, people see theatre as an unattainable luxury that only the gifted and privileged have access to but the case is most of us want to share what we learn – Bethan for instance does workshops in the prisons with Academi. Education is important to the VE team too – they work with Channel 4’s ‘4 talent’ and work within schools, not just to develop theatre skills but to also give people confidence, build self esteem and to just show that there isn’t a massive gap between the theatre and an audience. Both V and Bethan stressed that they want “real” people to come to their productions, open minded and willing to be as involved in the performance as the actors.
So what is next?
We didn’t get much out of V on this one, “the future is bright and varied” she said cryptically at the end. Although she is very excited about the next piece which will hopefully be a children’s show and she is looking at a stack of plays at the moment, all that is needed is the time and space to develop ideas and then the money to do it.
To find out more go to
Unprotected plays at Wales Millennium Centre’s Weston Studio on 8th and 9th December 2010 at 8pm. Tickets are available from or by contacting the Box Office on 029 2063 6464
(Unprotected poster taken from website)

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Camp as Christmas!

Mamma Mia
By Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Venue: Wales Millenium Centre
Dates: 16th Nov to 23rd Jan
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard

A fabulous celebration of ABBA’s greatest hits and 70’s culture Mamma Mia is the ultimate feel good musical, full of energy and oomph. The massive film sensation has revived the stage show’s popularity with sell out performances around the country.
Personally I was a little disappointed, having heard that the stage show is very different from the film I found the opposite to be true. Many of the costumes were VERY similar if not identical, characterisation was alike and even the choreography was familiar. A welcome addition to the live performance was the inclusion of some of ABBA’s songs that didn’t make it to cinema. This stopped the performance becoming too predictable but didn’t stop a rowdy audience singing along!
Before I go on to rant I want to stress that I did enjoy the energy and feel good nature of the show but there were some flaws that you wouldn’t expect in a professional tour (but maybe I am just too picky?). For the whole of the first act the sound levels seemed to be out of balance with some characters barely audible, it was fortunate that the audience were familiar with the lyrics as most of the story is told through the music. The reliance on the songs I felt was far too great, the brief stints of acting were a little lifeless and seemed to just fill time between tunes.
 2009/10 International Tour Cast - Press/Publicity Photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
My biggest complaint was that due to the audience’s familiarity with the show they treated it like panto, offering (often completely irrelevant) replies to the cast and would sing in what were meant to be dramatic silences. Although funny to begin with it soon got tiresome and definitely lessened the impact of the emotional scenes in act 2.    
The highlight of the evening was most certainly the encore; the cast were clearly enjoying themselves and the audience were on their feet. The choreography was breathtaking, especially from the male members of the cast who performed acrobatic feats as it they were a walk in the park. It was a fabulously camp, loud and energetic crowd pleaser that ensured every single person left with a warm fuzzy feeling inside
 I would definitely recommend it as a Christmas treat but don’t expect to see anything new.        

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Sexuality and Desire in the Struggle for Power

Measure for Measure
Sherman Cymru
Venue: The Provincial, Cardiff Bay
Directed by : Chris Ricketts
Dates: 18 November - 05 December
Reviewed by Chelsey Gillard
Photographs from Sherman Cymru Gallery

William Shakespeare's play dealing with corruption, power and lust has been dramatically remodelled by D.J. Britton to deliver a punchy, sharp and relevant piece of theatre. The whole production has been shortened to two hours and many characters from the original have been merged to give a smaller but very strong cast.
Even with the reduced number of characters most of the actors had to take on two roles. This really developed the ideas of deception and hidden agendas, especially as the characters were often polar opposites. Perhaps the best example of this was Ifan Meredith's solemn, chaste Angelo and his delightfully camp brothel madam Mistress Overdone.


Ifan Meredith tries to seduce Kezia Burrows

To allow this duality of character the costumes were masterfully designed. Some had removable panels that revealed chains and piercings, others cloaks that were readjusted to showcase busty corsets. Kezia Burrows beautifully played Isabella, a novice nun, whose habit had a cut out panel to reveal lace and barely concealed underwear, showing how even those who devote their life to chastity can be objects of desire.

As it was performed in the round the audience could not help but feel involved and therefore cast their own judgements as to who was right and wrong in a tale full of vice. The audience were even given the opportunity to sit right alongside the action with ringside seats. The whole set was magnificent; drawers and chests with half open cupboards gave a sense of secrecy and temptation, scattered bottles of alcohol and makeup illustrated the lack of self restraint all the characters felt at some point.



Opulent surroundings at The Provincial

Even the venue added to the atmosphere, the building is in the centre of what used to be Cardiff's red light district, but was formerly a bank. These contrary ideas of sexuality and power were key themes of the play. The lighting and music built the sensual ambience, with moody saxophone and deep lighting. Everything came together to build a fantastic atmosphere and really compelling performance.



"Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall".

Monday, 15 November 2010

A Bizzare Slice of Welsh Life

The Dark Philosophers
National Theatre Wales with Told by an Idiot
Venue: The Riverfront, Newport
Directed by: Paul Hunter
Verdict: ****
Reviewed By Chelsey Gillard

 A drama critics dream, The Dark Philosophers is brilliantly bizarre. The highly physical piece asked a lot from the performers with each one taking on numerous roles, including animating the giant puppet that was the terrifying Oscar; owner of the Welsh mountain where the play is set.

As Gwyn Thomas’ stories are acted out he watches proceedings narrating and often offering the characters appropriate lines. Although this was a very clever device that gave insight into the writer’s mind, the mask that was worn throughout the performance made the character seem distant and less real than some of the others. Having said this Glyn Pritchard more than made up for the lack of facial expressions with flamboyant gestures and a superb voice.

The set was a ramshackle pile of wardrobes and drawers that were used to portray houses, pubs and bedrooms. This brilliant design perfectly illustrated how the characters could have no secrets due to their proximity.

Each character, even those with no lines, was unique. The eight actors were brilliant at changing their body language, voices and even genders to suit each oddball inhabitant of the valley. Any Welsh person watching the show would easily identify with these characters that seem to pop up all over the country.  
Original music by Iain Johnstone added to the tension, especially in what seemed to be a murder scene. The actors urged the potential murderer on with an intricate multipart song and chant that had my heart pounding with anticipation.

Although the production may not be to the taste of more traditional theatre goers and Gwyn Thomas fans, I found it compelling. Real empathy was developed between the audience and characters and I was genuinely moved by some of the stories. Elements of the show reminded me of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milkwood” especially the dark humour and eccentric personalities. It was a brave production but the risks definitely paid off.

 The Dark Philosophers will also be performed at Y Stiwt, Wrexham on Friday 19th  and Saturday 20th, November.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Staring Competition

Kontakt 3
Sherman Cymru Youth Theatre
Venue: St. John's Church, Canton
Directed and Developed by Phillip Mackenzie
Dates: 28th Oct - 6th Nov
Verdict: ****
Review by Chelsey Gillard
Photographs by Andy Hammer

             The first point of contact with another human being is usually through the eyes, but it is rather unusual to find yourself sat behind a little table, in a candle lit church with a complete stranger staring into the depths of your soul. Kontakt is an annual event that forces communication and understanding between different generations and backgrounds, beginning with a surreal staring competition where nothing is said and the only noise is eerie  music and the snap of candles burning.
The beautifully haunting venue.

               Waiting for the performance to begin I really didn't know what to expect, all the information I could find on Kontakt was rather elusive. Next thing I knew a young man appeared asking the "participants" to take their seats. Not knowing what to do I waited until someone informed me I was indeed a participant and of course this filled me with dread; I do not enjoy the whole "He's behind you" routine and audience participation puts me on edge.

                Throughout the night different young people from the cast took the seat opposite me sometimes just to chat, others held my hands in silence, one questioned me on the fundamentals of good and evil but all broke through the shield we put up when confronted with an uncomfortable and unexpected situation. In this respect the event was  real success, I felt like I had really gotten to know some of the young people, I even agreed to get up and dance which is an event that usually only occurs after a good few rum and cokes.

Every "participant" was persuaded to bust some moves. 

                 In contrast to this I felt some of the content was irrelevant and just plain awkward. There was  recurring dance that the cast would do in front of the tables, the first few moves looked like the beginning of the Macarena and this had me desperately trying to stifle my giggles, at one point it got so bad that the performer in front of me got the giggles too and I had to look away every time the move came around. Another poor choice was a position where the dancers put their hands on their hips, for girls fine, but the boys looked so comically uncomfortable. I have to say I'm not entirely sure what purpose the dancing served.

              One of the teenage girls who sat opposite me broke the magic by asking "Do you think this is acting? Because I don't." Having had time to consider this my view of the whole experience is that although it is not traditional theatre it will teach the young performers a lot of essential skills; concentration, audience connection, self-confidence and the ability to be true on stage.    

Getting to know you...
                 I would honestly encourage everyone to make Kontakt, it's eye-opening, educational and heartwarming. It was like speed-dating without the date, but with a lot more truth. I learnt a lot about myself and will keep the souvenir picture I drew with one of the actors to remind me that it is possible for humans to honest and warm towards each other. I will definitely be attending next year to see what new social challenges the company can offer.  



Thursday, 4 November 2010

Love and Loss in Bridgend

Love Steals Us From Loneliness by Gary Owen
National Theatre Wales with Sherman Cymru
Venue: Hobo’s Rock Club, Bridgend
Dates: 7th – 16th Oct 2010
Director: John E McGrath  
Verdict: ***
Review by Chelsey Gillard
Photographs by Toby Farrow
               Being born and bred in Bridgend I was dreading either a depressing, dark and moody look at teenage life in “the Big-End” or a telling off about how the town was so much better back in the day and that kids don’t get outside enough. The teens in this play were of course moody and bordering on depression (what teen isn’t) but they certainly got out enough! Their destination of choice was Bridgend town centre at Halloween; a place that locals know, come midnight, is full of witches and monsters all year round.

              Standing in the bar waiting for the show to start I realised that someone I vaguely recognised was standing next to me looking nervous, a second look revealed Mark Sumner in the part of Scott. He was living the geeky character so thoroughly that even after years of acting alongside him in the Bridgend Youth Theatre it took me a while to figure out his identity. The karaoke microphone on the small stage was soon put to use as Scott began the play with a song interrupted by a rather gobby yet beautiful Catrin (Katie Elin-Salt) storming out of the club.
              We were led into the intimate, double sided, theatre area and the play began proper.  Catrin and Scott were now in a graveyard where Catrin was trying to relieve herself. The awkwardness of the situation soon forced the two- linked by their friendship and love of Lee, Catrin’s boyfriend - to not only talk, but listen. This act of the play was beautifully naturalistic, with a lot of Bridgend’s unique language captured almost perfectly, including very regular F- and C-bombs. Scott’s understated declaration of love for Catrin was realistic, funny and most of all touching. The interval came all too soon as we waited for Catrin’s response. 

Katie Elin-Salt and Mark Sumner drunkenly discuss love.
            In the second act the metal hoops that were earlier used as seats and fences were now decorated in various personal belongings – Lee’s belongings, who we learn has died in a car crash via the brutal text message “Lee’s dead” from his mother to his sister. His shoes, clothes and car accessories constantly give this character a presence on the stage although there is never a physical embodiment of the boy who is to remain forever 17.
            We are joined by three new characters; Lee’s sister Becky, played by Remy Beasley, who was possibly a secondary character but she made the part as important as all the others with a unique combination of brash charm and sensitivity. Catrin’s new boyfriend Mikey, Matthew Trevannion, who reminded me of that friend we all have that we sometimes wish we didn’t know so we don’t have to admit to any connection in public but we love deep down. And Lee’s mother Mags, superbly portrayed by Nia Roberts, who won most, if not all of our sympathy with her descent into grief- stricken meltdown.
A distressed Nia Roberts as Mags.

             This act flipped, sometimes ungracefully, between naturalistic speech and more poetic musings on life, love and mortality. Personally I think these musings were perhaps out of character, but they did serve the purpose of giving us an insight into each person’s journey from the hell of losing a loved one to the need to move on with life. The monologues occasionally seemed to be designed only to tug on the heartstrings and I felt more moved by some of the more underplayed lines. The bittersweet ending gave us Catrin’s much anticipated answer to Scott’s adoration; a brief kiss that had provided the fuel for Lee’s high speed death.       
Having myself acted in one of Gary Owen’s plays “Mary Twice” I must rather brutally admit that I was not expecting much from the script. Although “Love Steals” was an improvement I still feel the success of this production lies in the hands of the director and actors who used everything they were given; script, music, set and venue; to their full advantage.
My main criticism is that on times the effort the actors were making to address both sides of the audience was a bit obvious with big, although probably unintentional, flourishes when turning around and that as they we on stage for the full second half brief lapses in concentration were all too visible. Also if that is what a Bridgend accent truly sounds like I need to get myself some elocution lessons pronto!
Remy Beasley as Becky, with a floral tribute to her brother in the background.
               Hopefully this production will force those with the power to sit up and realise that Bridgend is bursting with talent and a thirst for quality theatre that requires a full time venue in the town centre that will hopefully attract more productions from the fantastic NTW. The time has come for my little ugly-beautiful town to lick its wounds and move on to a bright future whilst also remembering its past, bad times but more so good.