A Good Night Out In The Valleys
National Theatre Wales
Blackwood Miners Institute
The choice of first show for a brand new national theatre company is necessarily a political one. For a non-building
based company like National Theatre Wales, the venue also assumes extra
significance. With an opening performance called A Good Night Out In The
Valleys touring miners’ institutes and workmens’ halls, Artistic Director John
E McGrath has very deliberately planted the National Theatre flag in the
heartlands of English-speaking Wales, perhaps leaving the company open to
accusations of parochialism but ensuring an enthusiastic local response.
Outside the ‘Stute’ there is a palpable buzz. A burger van opposite the entrance, Bevan’s Meats and Treats, offers
massages in addition to hot dogs and chips. A coffin is carried down the
street. Inside, house band 4th Street Traffic play Stereophonics
numbers. Punters and performers mingle at pub tables. The lights go down, an
imported audience file to their seats at the back of the stage beyond a ragged
green curtain, and without further ado Boyd Clack comes onstage in a yellow
chicken suit. National Theatre Wales is born.
The emphasis is on variety. Bingo; a raffle; a few too many drinks; a fight; songs. From collected real life stories
writer Alan Harris weaves a rich tapestry. Harris’ ear for accent and dialect
connects, often raucously, with the intended – local - audience. Line after
line, intonation and comic timing are as pitch perfect as they would be in any
‘Stute’ in south Wales on a Friday night. The show is a theatrical montage of
valleys life but this slice-of-life play cuts deep as well as wide, playing the
dysfunction of contemporary post-industrial life against a deep-seated
awareness of the past. Kyle, son of a miners’ strike scab, has returned to his
forefathers’ village, intent on revenge; the Stute is under threat from a newly
proposed opencast mine. ‘We’ve always had the worst done to us, landowners,
mine owners, ironmasters. It’s always been them and us.’
To anybody even vaguely familiar with the history of the coalfield, this is territory so familiar it is almost trite.
What saves A Good Night Out from becoming just another depiction of working
class life in a dead-end town is the careful balance of lyricism and
laugh-out-loud comedy in the writing and the rich tonal diversity. Coupled with
Angela Davies’ sensitive design – layered, sloping platforms reminiscent of
higgledy-piggledy terraces clinging to the hillsides - the room fills with that
curious Welsh blend of ribaldry and melancholy.
There’s little that’s new in A Good Night Out In The Valleys; it is nothing if not exactly that: an enjoyable evening’s
entertainment. ‘Nice to see this place full,’ says our host, to a huge murmur
of assent. The ‘Stute’ is the star here. Having been many things to many people
over the years - snooker hall, library and reading room, dancehall, arts centre
- the building is integral to the production: ‘more than bricks and mortar’.
The pennies miners paid week by week funded an ‘institute’, a philosophy of
life as well as a building. NTW will be hoping the goodwill engendered by this
crowd-pleaser institutes a new appetite for theatre in a nation now ready to
engage with its future as well as its past.
A Good Night Out?
A Good Night Out in the Valleys, National Theatre Wales’s first production, performed at Blackwood Miners’ Institute, was exactly that: a good night out.
The drama centres on the struggle for the future of the Miners’ Institute as Kyle (Huw
Rhys) a developer from a mining company comes to the village. Through his
interaction with Con (Boyd Clack), the manager of the Institute, and various
other characters, such as amateur boxer Dirty Karen (Siwan Morris), Con’s
daughter Sue (Amy Starling) and miner’s son Shwni (Oliver Wood), it becomes
apparent that he is not a stranger, and that he has his own reasons for
masterminding the demise of the Institute. However Kyle’s plan to avenge the
bullying and intimidation suffered by his family during the Miner’s Strike is
put in jeopardy as he finds himself falling for Sue, despite her father’s role
in making his family’s life a misery. Directed by John E McGrath and written by Alan Harris, the
play was developed following workshops and interviews with groups and
individuals from the Valleys which gives it an authenticity, and makes it a
product of its area.
The production made exceptional use of the available space: having audience members on the
stage taking the place of regulars at the Miners’ Institute was a clever way of
creating a link between the audience and the action, as well as breaking down
the barrier between audience and actor. This interaction was furthered by the audience participating
in a game of bingo at the Institute, as well as a salesperson for Bevan’s meats
and treats doing the rounds. The demolishing of barriers, and reaching out to
the audience is not merely a ploy used for this first production, but is rather
a central concern for National Theatre Wales. The company has decided against having their own building,
and have chosen instead to take their productions to various communities across
the country, and through this, to reach out to the people of Wales.
The drama was lacking one, defining, strong plot line: however the use of many inter-weaving
strands was successful in building layers of relationships between the
characters, which represented realistically the make up of a tight-knit
community. Although the conclusion of the main point of conflict in the plot,
as Kyle and Sue end up living happily ever after despite the bitterness and
mistrust between both families, was far too predictable, this did not detract
from our enjoyment. A love story on
two sides of a divide, be that social, political or racial, has been
done to death, but this play escaped the charge of predictability because, how
could the production be a good night out in any worthwhile way without a happy
The production was not trying to preach to its audience, nor was it trying to tackle world
issues; rather it was trying to entertain and amuse, whilst holding up a mirror
to the Valleys community, and succeeded in these ends.This is not to say that
the play shied away from more serious topics: it dealt convincingly with unemployment,
illness, death, revenge, forgiveness, belonging, as well as the continuing
consequences of the miners’ strike on a community torn in two by the dispute.
There were numerous emotionally fraught scenes: an ex-miner slowly dying from the
effects of coal dust, a scab’s son confronting the man who had ostracised his
family. However the humour pulsating throughout the production, and here I must
highlight Sharon Morgan’s, Strongbow drinking, Dizzee Rascal loving granny who
stole each and every scene in which she appeared, ensured that it did not fall
into the trap of sentimentalising life in the Valleys. Rather this was a drama
which represented the Valleys and its inhabitants with their weaknesses, as well
as their strengths on show for all to see.
This show certainly set the benchmark for National Theatre Wales’s programme: I hope future productions will succeed in reaching the same standard.
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