Friday, 24 May 2013

Biography of Welsh Star Brings Smiles But Lacks Substance

Say It With Flowers
Sherman Cymru
Theatre 1
17th May 2013

Dorothy Squires is undoubtedly one of the most successful singers and biggest personalities to come from Wales. Her tale of rags to riches – to rags again is enthralling and was never far from the pages of tabloid newspapers. Sherman Cymru have teamed up with writers Meic Povey and lifelong friend of Dorothy, Johnny Tudor to create a fitting tribute to the amazing life and career of a Welsh legend.

Say It With Flowers is an embellished biography of Dot’s rise from a singer in social clubs in Llanelli to a worldwide star. It begins near the end, having lost or wasted most of her money Old Dot (played by another Welsh great Ruth Madoc) is waiting at the train station to meet a dedicated fan who has offered Dot a place to stay. 

Lynn Hunter is fantastic as Maisie, the kind-hearted and generous fan who lets Dorothy stay with her in her small and badly decorated 90’s home. These two bounce off each other brilliantly and offer most of the laughs throughout the show. Their brief friendship is genuine and really shows the softer side of a woman known to be waspish, argumentative and sometimes cruel. The suggestion of naive and well meaning Maisie finding amphetamines to fuel Dorothy’s addiction is both hilarious and tragic.

Ruth Madoc as 'Old Dot'. Photo thanks to Toby Farrow

During her time at Maisie’s home it becomes clear that Dorothy is very unwell and through a series of flashbacks the highs and lows of her career and personal life are touchingly explored to help us see how she has become the way she is now. The stand out performance of the night came from Gillian Kirkpatrick as Young Dot. Her fiery temperament, powerful voice and particular gestures were spot on and some of her vocal performances were indistinguishable from videos of the real Dorothy Squires performing.

Dorothy’s humble beginnings, singing with brother Freddie (Aled Pedrick), give a real sense of her undying ambition and the support she had from her family despite the fact that she shunned them, firing her own brother and refusing to attend her father’s funeral. Matt Nalton also gives a good, if brief, performance as Dorothy’s second husband, the then unknown Roger Moore. The tempestuousness and violent passion of their romance was caught brilliantly but left little room to explore her other big romance with collaborator Billy Reid or her series of court battles with journalists and newspapers.


Heledd Gywnn was a late addition to the show as Dorothy’s niece who lived with her for a brief time before they became estranged when Emily challenged Dorothy’s attitude towards family. A clearly talented actress but again she was given too little to work with and later scenes between her and Dorothy were unnecessary – we already understood she was a symbol of hope for the dying old lady to have some peace at last. 

It’s hard to criticize something that was without a doubt fun and certainly had me smiling but the odd staging and sometimes hackneyed lines stopped this show reaching its full potential. The stage was split down the middle between Maisie’s horrific 1990’s home and an odd, black, bare box that was used for all the flashback scenes. Dealing with multiple times zones is always going to be a challenge onstage but considering most of the action took place in these areas they were very cramped and action often spilled over into the orchestra pit which was completely out of some audience members’ sightlines.


Gillian Kirkpatrick as 'Young Dot'. Photo thanks to Toby Farrow.

The reason for these areas being so far downstage became apparent towards the end when a fantastic and beautifully choreographed scene change transformed the stage into a dramatic and surreal hospital room where Old Dot spends her last few days waiting to hear from the love of her life, Roger Moore. Although this was the most impressive moment of technical theatre in the production it did not quite make up for the previous squashed feeling and came too late. 

Another oddity was the frequent swearing, especially a certain four letter word beginning with ‘C’. Normally if an older actress swears onstage it is a moment of shock but as it kept popping up it lost all power and became stale. The real Dorothy Squires was known for her lapses in manners and occasional swearing but it became very old, very fast. 

It’s such a shame that confused staging and a sometimes poor script let down such an incredible cast. Each of them gave convincing and touching performances and the quality of singing was flawless. All the raw material was there; a great story, a great personality, a great cast; but somehow it didn’t all click into place.

Say It With Flowers is certainly worth watching and is undeniably entertaining. With a few tweaks it could be a heartbreaking tale of a woman’s descent into old-age ill-health from the very heights of stardom. 

 Author's note: I apologise for the delay in getting this review online. To say sorry here's a little video of the real Dorothy I found on Youtube which is sure to make you smile.


Friday, 10 May 2013

Welsh Folklore and Tragic Reality

Salt, Root and Roe
Theatr Clwyd Cymru
Sherman Cymru, Theatre 2
8th May 2013

The run down house of elderly twin sisters Anest and Iola seems to rise up out of the sea and if the stories are to be believed they themselves were found in a lobster pot by their father who was half merman! 

This feeling of Welsh fairytale runs deep through Tim Price’s beautifully written play and it gives the sense that the twins are somewhat ethereal and otherworldly. Indeed we soon find out that they do not have long left in this world, having decided to take their own lives to release themselves from the torture of Iola’s ever-worsening dementia.

Early moments did (for me) feel somewhat melodramatic but soon a beautifully directed rhythm of highs and lows really captured the sense of Iola’s good days and bad days. Sara Harris-Davies sensitively and convincingly played Iola, skilfully navigating both the tender and the violent aspects of the septuagenarian’s illness. Combined with the tender love pouring out of Betsan Llwyd’s Anest the pair were genuinely heartbreaking and certainly had the audience in tears on more than one occasion. 

One of the only things keeping the pair alive is their tie to Anest’s daughter Menna (Catrin Aaron) who rushes to their Pembrokeshire home as soon as she receives a letter from Iola telling her niece that she plans to kill herself. Tragic Menna already has a lot to deal with; she seems to suffer with crippling obsessive compulsive disorder centred on a fear of germs. Her desperation to rekindle her Welsh origins and reignite the older women’s passion for life whilst dealing with her own demons was moving and made an initially cold woman human and relatable.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom; whenever caring local policeman and family friend Gareth (Brendan Charleson) entered he seemed to bring a ball of positive energy with him despite having his own problems at home. His chemistry with Menna was wonderful to watch as the two slowly grew more comfortable in each other’s company.

In what is already a charmingly slow-burning play unnecessarily slow furniture changes sucked any pace from proceedings. Although this suited the gentle nature of the dialogue it was frustrating when the stage was left empty with only off-stage murmurings to keep you engaged. 

Having said that, the words and the acting were so expertly crafted that the production did not once lose the audience’s attention. It was refreshing to see a contemporary play that dealt head-on with one of the most controversial topics of healthcare today. Not only did it provide a heartbreakingly honest portrayal of old age but it also had an obvious and well reasoned pro-euthanasia stance without being pushy or overtly political. Here were two old women who could be any Welsh Mamgu trying their best to come to terms with human frailty. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

Stunning Ariel Acrobatics from NoFit State

NoFit State Circus
Wales Millennium Centre
3rd May 2013

To describe exactly what happened would be to somehow diminish it - words could never give you the same feeling of excitement, wonder and fear as the daring feats performed by the cast of Bianco right above your head!

 In their daring promenade performance NoFit State invited the audience up onto the WMC main stage where the performance took place around, in and above the crowd. Huge pieces of mobile scaffolding were manoeuvred to constantly redesign the performance space and unveil the next spectacle. 

Do blondes have more fun? Ariele Ebacher Photograph: David Levene
True to their style there was no concrete narrative through the piece, just reoccurring themes particularly that of shedding what is unnecessary in order to achieve more. One particularly striking scene presented immaculately dressed blonde bombshell Ariele Ebacher traversing the tightwire in high heels. Gradually she shed her tailored dress, shoes and even the blonde wig to reveal an even more agile, strong and athletic brunette – her at her best.

As if there wasn’t already enough to entertain you a fantastic live band played throughout. Their range of styles was incredible; from moody and tense to upbeat and stereotypically circus-y. Sometimes they provided an abstract narrative to the aerial action that was particularly striking when combined with the powerful grace of August Dakteris.

Strong and sensitive performance from August Dakteris Photograph: David Levene
Some moments were truly touching, a duet performed on a suspended frame seemed to say all there is about love. The finale in which beautifully tattooed Sage Cushman joyfully performed dance-trapeze whilst a blizzard fell around her was again stunning. 

These incredible moments of finely crafted theatre were sadly diminished in places by the constant movement of the huge set and more could have been done between the set changes to keep the pace as high as it was in the breakneck ensemble pieces. Also on the rare occasions that the performers poke it was impossible to hear them.

The lack of storytelling allowed the company to focus on creating a series of otherworldly and breathtaking images. This experiment into promenade circus theatre although flawed in places was certainly exciting and engaging.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Bumbags, Curtain-cuts and Ecstasy!

Mercury Theatre Wales
Chapter Arts Theatre
2nd May 2013

Bum-bags, curtain-cuts and ecstasy, add in a hypnotic rave track and you have the perfect ingredients for a night out in 1993!

Mercury Theatre completely transformed the theatre in Chapter, removing the seating and replacing it with a bar, DJ booth, a seated “chill-out zone” and dance platforms. The black walls, laser projections, film clips of clubbers and heavy soundtrack really made it feel as though we had been let into a top night spot. 

The bouncer on the door frisked some of the men, while the rest of us had a smiley face stamped on our hands and were given neon glosticks to get us in the mood to party. It was surprising how easy it was to be caught up by the music (not at all to my taste!) and soon most people were at least bobbing their heads in time to the beats, some were really going for it and could have fit in nicely with the cast.

Photograph by : Raw Talent Photgraphy
Up on the platform beautiful and innocent Angel (Sian Davies) lets the music control her body as she writhes seductively unaware of the attention she is attracting. She has certainly caught Gary’s (Rhy Downing) eye – he looks on longingly, after trying to convince his mate Sean (Jason Marc-Williams) to take some “painkillers” to help his headache. Sean is there to see his girlfriend Donna (Holly Fry) , they live the typical Welsh valley’s life – get a job and settle down young, but is this enough for DJ wannabe Donna? 

The inspiration for Donna’s goal comes in the form of DJ Johnny (Lee Mengo) who started out with a passion for music but somewhere along the way he got distracted by the women and the drugs. Linking all these characters together is Angel’s mother’s boyfriend - Steve (Jason May) a businessman proudly showing off the latest in technology - his huge mobile phone. He is also a casual drug dealer who just can’t stop using himself.

There was just enough narrative cleverly woven into the quieter moments of music but unfortunately quite a lot was lost due to microphone volume (possibly intentional, but seemed like an error). Cleverly choreographed movement scenes were slick and impressive, really expressing the feelings of euphoria that this kind of club culture is associated with. 

Having seen this as a work in progress as part of the Wales Millennium Centre’s Incubator scheme I was pleased to see how much the work has come on. New video art by Holly Genevieve and music by renowned DJ Jimpy really enhanced the authentic club feel. On the other hand the dialogue and characters were still somewhat clich├ęd and certain plot points – a sudden (drug related?) collapse – were never fully explained or explored. Having said that more dialogue would have weighed down the fast pace and disturbed the immersive nature of the production.

Lee Mengo as DJ Johnny Photograph by: Kirsten McTernan

The cast were excellent, not to mention unbelievably fit, to keep up that level of energy and give believable performances is no easy task. Special mention must go to Lee Mengo as DJ Johnny who bought an easy going, natural charm to his performance and Jason May as slightly past it Steve. As the oldest member of the cast Jason gave the most heartbreaking and convincing performance as a man trapped by his own addictions and fears, he was completely believable as a real hardcore clubber who doesn’t know when it’s time to just go home.

This really is a company to keep your eye on, here they have created a truly original and innovative piece of work that is sure to leave the audience with a smile on their face and a sudden desire to don their best shell suit and hit an underground rave.

The tour continues:
8th May – Aberystwyth Arts Centre
15-18th May - Volcano @229 High Street, Swansea
23rd May - The Riverfront, Newport
25th May – Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tydfil

For more on Mercury Theatre Wales –
Twitter: @MercuryTheatre1

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