Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco Review

A play about the stories we tell ourselves

It’s been 13 years since Gary Owen’s breakthrough hit, Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, premiered at Chapter Cardiff. It was met with high acclaim and launched Gary Owen on an award littered trajectory that would spawn such theatrical hits as The Shadow of a Boy and The Drowned World. Now picked up by Waking Exploits theatre company, Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco returns to Wales, where it all began.

From the offset, it’s clear that director Matt Ball has put his stamp on this with a minimalist stage design stripped of all unnecessary props. As the audience’s murmurs hush into silence, the stage lights turn on and three men stare out at us; Gary, Mathew and Russell. One after the other, each character recalls their story, rarely relying on anything other than their words to portray their circumstances. Without the influence of backdrops and full sets we are forced to see the world through the character’s eyes. When Gary marches towards us, screaming about karaoke, we have nothing else to look at- it’s just him and us- and that’s how it begins.

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Gary is a bully who brags about the violent deeds he enacts on other men. His victims are defined- in Gary’s terms- as weak, posh and four-eyed; everything he is not. When he refers to school his eyes glaze over with nostalgia for the good old days. Gary is the worst type of bully, he understands the psychology of dominance and he loves watching men squirm under his gaze of masculinity. But Gary’s story is a façade. His self-constructed world bursts at the seams with Gary’s real problems. He wants to be loved; a clichéd trope which could possibly have led the play into all-to familiar territory, but in the able performance of Jordan Bernade, it becomes an engaging feature, always present underneath his words but never explicitly stated. A chance encounter with the girl of his dreams thrusts Gary into a verbal frenzy as he wrestles with the vocabulary he has to hand to recollect the incident. Here we see deep universal feelings burst through in analogies of cold pints and fist fights. But Gary only lets his guard down for a few fleeting minutes. In a move that is perhaps slightly heavy handed, it is revealed that Gary has a fear of crying; a character defining flaw which is maybe too conveniently symbolic for an otherwise organic character.

From Gary we move onto Mathew; a soft-spoken man whose unnerving story is punctuated by karaoke(think‘Only God Forgives’ but with Frank Spencer instead of Ryan Gosling). For all his niceties Mathew is just as deluded as Gary. His sole purpose is to serve God and sing Karaoke. He is talentless and yet remains stunned by the fact he hasn’t yet “made it”.  Yet there is a deeper level of delusion operating in Mathew; his naïve outlook is stretched to its limit as he recalls his sinister story of dark deeds and confrontations. Visual cues spill out onto screens in the foreground (tellingly out of view of the character), adding a menacing shadow to Mathew’s sugar-coated words. These projected images, of mouthfuls of blood and milk spilling down chins, were there during Gary’s explosive outbursts. The same repressed emotion that defines Gary lies bubbling under Matthew.

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The final act is for Russell, a man stuck in a rut of a loveless relationship in a town that he despises. Beneath the banality of Russell’s life lies a secret that has come to define him; a dark secret that anchors him to his hometown. Sion Pritchard deserves a special mention for his performance as Russell. His character arc dramatically shifts from a relatable man who wants desperately to move out of the valleys, to something altogether unrecognizable. This transition is fairly rapid but Russell remains the most believable character out of the three. Again, recurring phrases and projections drill home the quite clear message, at this stage, that all three characters are fuelled by the same thing. The fact they are all male is no accident. Questions of masculinity plague all three characters. All three live in the same Welsh valleys town, a place stripped of its industry and influence over the world; what better place to ask questions of perceived male impotence.

Gary Owen’s script ties together the three stories with just the right amount of serendipity. Each story complements the other without it ever seeming contrived. There is perhaps an interesting social message to Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco. All three characters have been left on their own for too long and are in desperate need of help. Their delusions serve to blanket them from the harsh realities of the world. Whether they are outrunning commitment, love or a particular traumatic experience, it all ends the same. The worlds of Gary, Mathew and Russell are testament to the fact that while we inevitably make stories about ourselves, we ultimately have no say in what happens.

 

Images: Farrows Creative

 

Review: Headlong’s 1984 at Sherman Cymru

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See the thing is, I used to hate Charlie Brooker. It was only when I realised that Nathan Barley was made in 2005 and that ‘the idiots are winning’ in a spectacularly prophetic fashion even today, that I began to appreciate his work.

Black Mirror series one (a little less so series two), felt like Brooker had turned his hand to something with significantly less foresight and more a look to the present and past. Although many of the episodes focussed on the the pervasion of peculiar technologies on our social and psychic lives, the ideas were certainly not new ones.

In fact, many of the ideas identified in Brooker’s Black Mirror have been around since Bentham unleashed his research on the Panopticon in the 1790s: you are being watched but to what extent, you do not know.

Of course, with a sheen on the exterior and the use of modern devices such as white noise and abrupt cuts between scenes and images, the series had a distinctively dystopian feel which left all of us stunned as we watched the zoophilic acts of Britain’s top politician beamed into our eyeballs on a quiet evening.

But I can’t say that I’ve ever really been stunned on a psychological level by something on the stage. I’ll admit that I was pretty freaked out the first time I saw Woman in Black but it wasn’t on the same plateau as the aforementioned Channel 4 programme or, for argument’s sake, Marina de Van’s Ne Te Retourne Pas (which left an entire cinema speechless on exit).

It’s sort of ironic then, really, that the first time that I had ever been so affected by a stage production was Headlong’s production of George Orwell’s 1984 which is undoubtedly one of the more enlightened influences for that old Black Mirror.

At a packed out Sherman Cymru, Orwell’s classic story saw an awkwardly modern adaptation at the capable hands of Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan.

Awkwardly modern? The production (the story is now approaching its seventh decade) makes an incredible use of lights, cameras and startlingly enveloping sound to paint the picture of what living in a totalitarian state must be like. However, the employment of those very recent devices was to illustrate ideas more suited to Orwell’s own time: propaganda and the possibilities presented at the birth of the idea of psychological power (Foucault’s very accessible lectures on the subject came only 20 years after the publication of 1984, Freud’s idea of the uncanny had been well discussed for 20 years previous.)

The use of blackouts and harsh sound and light to portray torture scenes in particular were very reminiscent of that awkwardly modern approach to this production.

However, while other productions would struggle to maintain a level of perverse enjoyment and, at times, dark comedy, against a backdrop of what is essentially a pleasant barrage of unpleasant techniques, the work of writers Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan, Set and Costume Designer Chloe Lamford, Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers, Sound Designer Tom Gibbons and Video Designer Tim Reid as well as every single actor who appears on stage stands up and balances with care and vicious control the necessary components: this production is breathtaking. The words will be stolen right from your mouth.

In my opinion, this is a flawless piece of theatre and a great example of the magic of the medium: unlike Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror which can still be watched on demand, at any time, anywhere even now, this production will only be produced a limited number of times.

It is Orwell’s story eating itself on stage. Just as Winston’s covert reading has only been read by a few (?) people, so this production will only be seen by a few.

But won’t it just have an impact? I feel as if I’ve taken part in a happening.

If we gave ratings for creative works, this would get top marks – by every metric.

Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse’s 1984 plays at Sherman Cymru from now until Saturday 9 November 2013.

Review: Fallen by Shock n Awe

The best way for you to get a feel for what Fallen by Greg Cullen is like is for me to make a list of the themes included in the piece:

  • Incubus (sort of)
  • Transvestitism/Transgenderism
  • Patricide
  • Incest
  • The war on terror (maybe??)
  • Welshness
  • Depression
  • Is depression linked to Welshness?

Then the second thing that will give you an idea of what Fallen is like is to tell you what genre to class it under:

  • Comedy
  • Hilarious

Those things together should give you at least some indication of why Greg Cullen is a really good writer and director. There are not many people who would be able to string together those dark themes and independent theatre and then make the audience laugh for a good hour and a quarter of their play.

The piece takes place on a farm in mid Wales (although it’s not actually ever explained where) and the farmer’s family are convinced that there is something mystical about the stones that the farm is surrounded by as the characters go about their everyday absurdity: the youngest daughter gets her only pleasure out of self harm and sleeping with her dad, her brother pleases himself to try on his sister’s clothes, the older sister is as sexually repressed as a nun at an orgy, the father is a drunk who cries in the barn at night.

Their separate stories and quirks are all brought together by the appearance of an angelic figure who falls from the sky with a bag over his head. He’s rescued from the river (although already dead) and brought into the farmhouse by the son who ‘marries’ the angel. What follows is a series of scenes which carefully walk the razor’s edge between hilarious dark comedy and plain darkness.

Shock n Awe’s actors do a fantastic job of carrying the idea of Welsh sarcasm and a joyful sense of glumness which is instantly familiar to anyone who grew up here.

Despite the characters being very believable, the plot loses its way towards the end of the piece and it’s a real shame. Somewhere in the body of the play, the idea of a dead mother and a war going on are discussed. It would have been nice if it was a little less of a cryptic trail to working out why these are themes when the characters themselves give ample enjoyment and story.

Altogether, this is one of the funniest pieces I have seen in a long time and Cullen’s ability to turn the serious into lightness is a talent that many writers will envy.

Reverie: a dream for theatre going game fans

Almost two years ago, we featured an interview with Julian Sykes who was on the path to creating a city wide game called Everwake which saw teams running around Cardiff trying to solve a mystery.

After the huge success of their first venture, Sykes and partner Allie John are currently in the throes of planning part two in their trilogy of games.

“I’m a producer for Yellobrick. We formed the company in June and that’s me, Julian Sykes (who also runs Hoffi in the Bay) and a lady called Natalie Clements,” says Allie John when we speak at Cosy Club. “We had started initially with looking at games, street gaming and did a lot of research for about three years before we formed the company and we went to different places and played games. We visited people in Bristol, London and then also some guys in Manchester. We just went to loads and loads of different events which were quite new to us really. Nothing like that exists in Wales and I’m from a very much theatre background and I was interested in a different type of performance or spectacle. Julien came in from a design perspective and so when we came to all these different events we thought there was something that we could do similar to it.”

Now the two have created Reverie, a game based on a character from the first game. Reverie also adds a multimedia and long game aspect to the event with the use of a website that you can ‘hack into’ using materials delivered to you before the event.

“Reverie is a kind of sequel to Everwake. We’re playing with the idea of a traditional film trilogy that will eventually have three parts. There’s a third part that we’ve planned,” she explains. “Reverie is essentially a pyhsical game that’s played in the streets which has elements of theatre and story and narrative and it’s a mix of pervasive gaming and theatre. The way we’ve designed the game or story is that you don’t need to know what happens in Everwake to play Reverie. It exists as a one but as a trilogy you get the richness of the world and the background characters. With Reverie, we’ve been playing around with ideas of how to tell the story and the story basically begins online with the main characters from the live event. There’s a website for the Brook Institute and every week we do reports on a character called Tom who was in Everwake. You can ‘hack in’ to these reports by using your intuition and skill. If you look hard enough at things related to the game, you can crack the code and hack into the website.”

The game takes place over seven nights at the end of May. That led to quite a bit of confusion about how long players would be involved for. The answer is just one single evening but nevertheless, Yellobrick are excited that people are thinking it could be played over a week’s period.

“Some people were asking us if they have to play for 7 nights and that’s a really interesting concept,” says John. “We’ve spoken about it and it’s about how detailed the story is and everything we’ve created for the website – you can e-mail and phone us… that’s exciting to realise that the fiction becomes a reality but also fiction. It’s exciting.”

I’m excited to go along and play Reverie with a group of other people. The idea of a game which is part organised and part chance is an interesting one. Moreover, the idea of a community of adults coming together to explore the idea of gaming for grownups is quite something.

See you in Yellobrick’s dreams!

Reverie runs 27 May – 1 June 2013. Tickets are available from their website.

To Live, To Love, To Be at Sherman Cymru

As far as Shakespeare goes, I’m fairly ignorant. I did not know, for example, that Shakespeare’s family had a Welsh heritage somewhere along the line. Neither did I realise that his father was a man of some considerable influence in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

These are both facts that D.J. Britton, the writer behind To Live, To Love, To Be which plays at Sherman Cymru 17-20 April 2013, was keen to emphasise.

The play, performed by Company 5, a new company based out of Sherman Cymru, takes place in the form of a séance which conjures the spirit of William Shakespeare.

The huge table which form the set seats all of the characters in the play around it and rotates when spun by the actors themselves. It is here that the séance takes place to an olfactory backdrop of heady frankincense and an aural backdrop of droning electronic music giving Bill Shakespeare a peculiar new twist.

Stranger still is the idea that a seance of a writer is performed by his own characters and family, all of which are dead as well. It’s not exactly a new idea that the author/poet is examined by his own characters. As the old saying goes, ‘An author may not be one single character, but he might be all of them.’ However, in this case, the device proves to be quite useful with some very interesting performances.

Most notably, the character of Shakespeare’s grandmother who delivers a performance that makes her seem as if she had been plucked straight out of one of Shakespeare’s own comedies with her comical Welsh accent and mannerisms. The character of Shakespeare’s father John was also very well played.

While some of the other actors weren’t quite the most believable of performers, the fact that this is the first production by Company 5, a theatre company which encourages participation from amateurs and has no auditions, is impressive. Additionally, while the pace of the play may slow in its latter parts (particularly an incredibly confusing explanation of Macbeth), the format and execution of the idea were both very interesting and worth a visit.

Past Half Remembered: an interview with New International Encounter’s (NIE) Alex Byrne

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Click the picture to get your tickets

Next week (27-28 March) in Sherman Cymru sees the opening of Past Half Remembered, winner of a Herald Angel Award and Total Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Festival 2006.

“The story was interesting to us. We wanted to make a story about the woman’s life and what happened to her and also one set against the background of Russia in the 20th century. That’s the pillar. We made the show at the end of the 20th Century and looking back,” explains Alex Byrne, director at NIE. “It’s a romance about two people falling in love and trying to be together but history intervenes and changes their lives. I was interested in this story because it connected to major events of the 20th Century and often those stories are made through the eyes of major figures but this one is about a person who wasn’t but interesting things happened to them.”

The show takes place around the story of Maria Michaliovna and jumps around her memory of a changing 20th Century Russia using a five piece band and a mixture of languages. The show is based on the records of some Canadian photojournalists who made the trip from Vladivostok to St Petersburg,

“I looked at a bunch of information about Russia in the 20th Century and there were a group of Canadian photojournalists who made the trip from Vladivostok to St Petersburg and in each place they stopped, they recorded someone’s story,” Byrne explains. “The final story is in St Petersburg where they went to the birthday party of a hundred year old woman who told them her story. We didn’t do the story exactly but we used it as a starting point.”

But how does the show which has toured around the world translate to different stages and places all looking back at a Russia that no longer exists?

“We made the show with a core of storytelling in English. Most audiences across Europe could understand that and follow. In some ways it’s a very engaging story and clear too. In Japan we played with surtitles. We’ve often told the story in different languages,” he continues. “We play around with that and mess around with it. I try to always make shows where if you can’t understand any of the languages, you still understand what’s going on. You have a de facto situation where in Europe most people understand English as a second language. If you’ve got a core story in English, people can follow that.”

Although the show might sound serious, audiences can expect a well balanced mixture of comedy and tragedy when they watch NIE’s first Cardiff performances at Sherman Cymru next week.

“It’s interesting to talk about the show. It sounds very serious with the Revolution and the Second World War. One of the things that we’ve tried to do with all of our shows is to treat sometimes very serious and heavy material in a very light way and to find the comic and foolishness of it,” says the director with a tone of sympathy. “This is a serious and silly show. Of course you can expect to engage with history, memory and the past but also you should have a great time when you go to the theatre.”

Everyman Theatre’s Spring Awakening

When that wonderful man Frank Wedekind wrote his play Spring Awakening in 1891, Germany had been a country for only 20 years. At that time when Wedekind subtitled his play ‘A Children’s Tragedy’ he did so partly out of a tongue in cheek poke at the establishment – but more importantly, when he put pen to paper, the German language still didn’t have a word for ‘teenager.’

Wedekind (pron. Veh-duh-kint) knew that there were problems in his new country. Aside from all political issues, most of Europe was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the Church was no longer the final say in matters. The Enlightenment happened and sex became pleasurable.

So that’s the context that we find ourselves in when we read his play.

In parallel to that, Everyman Theatre’s version of the German classic is set in the early 1960s – when Europe was once again undergoing the throes of a post-war enlightenment.

The play finds schoolboys Michael and Morris (Melchior and Moritz if you’re familiar with the original), in the closing days of their school careers. They must all pass the coming exams in order to proceed onto the final two years of school. In contrast to Michael who is the archetypal ‘David Watts’ (See here), Morris is a dropout and looks likely to be one of the six students for whom there is simply no space in the upper school classroom.

As if his academic problems weren’t enough, Morris is terrified at the possibility of not finding out how it is that children are created or whether or not Michael ‘has stirrings.’ In response to these qualms of Morris, Michael agrees to write him a lengthy thesis of all that he knows about sexuality and reproduction complete with diagrams in the margins.

When this informative guide is discovered by Morris father (we’ve jumped a bit in the plot here – there are spoilers in the paragraph break) Michael – who has already proved that he’s very capable of degeneration with his class mate Wendy – is accused of being grossly pornographic and degenerate and told to leave school.

From here on, it all goes a bit downhill for the poor boy until he meets a masked man – who was originally played by Wedekind himself – in a graveyard.

The production by Everyman Theatre was a lovely adaptation of the original.

The play is set in the early 60s. The pedants among the audience will rightly point out that the soundtrack is a little confused, chronologically speaking with Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man being one of the most pertinent songs playing in the background during scene changes despite not being released until 1965.

But who needs pedants?

Director Eric Hadley leads a (mostly) young cast expertly. Of particular note are the lead roles Michael (Garin Wilcox) and Morris (Ricky Valentine) who give almost faultless performances. Valentine in particular is an excellent choice for the role of Morris who is, naturally, rather down on himself but with a comic turn.

The production fits very well with the original production and that it was a production of amateur dramatics only adds to the satisfaction that I left the Theatre at Chapter Arts Centre with.