Welsh theatre has been expanding for a few years now. We’ve had a successful few years of theatre reflected in the need for an award ceremony to recognise this great amount of innovation, creativity and talent. The big companies have been producing sharp, relevant pieces of work, whilst smaller companies have finally been getting the support, whether creatively or financially, needed to gain a platform. Welsh talent at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has always been present, but the complete explosion of companies from Wales this year has surely overtaken previous years. In fact, just to ensure that everyone was aware of our presence, there were numerous billboards with lists of performances from other Welsh-based artists. That’s something that no other country has at the Fringe: support from potential rival companies. This support network is rare in the world of theatre. You may get one company producing similar work supporting another, but to have the whole country supporting each piece of work, whatever the genre, is wonderfully inclusive.
This year, Welsh companies ranged from the free show on the Mile, to sell-outs at Traverse, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the difference in quality. Venue 13 housed three Welsh productions this year, Living Pictures’ Diary of a Madman, Mark Jermin’s Children of Mine and Aisling Kiely’s Cinderella Lives. Although Venue 13 wasn’t exactly enticing, the box office was one of the best for enquiries and information, and inside, the space itself was perfect for the productions it had. Cinderella Lives was marketed as a feminist burlesque. Unfortunately the feminism was about as subtle as an episode of Sex and the City and the burlesque was non-existent. Although the script was at times funny, the over-ambition of a one-woman show with several different characters, each with a different international accent, didn’t pay off. Having previously missed Diary of a Madman on its tour around Wales, it was a pleasure to be able to catch it at the Fringe. Adapted from a short Gogol fiction, the monologue tells the story of low ranking civil servant Poprishchin and follows his decent into insanity. Although the nature of the script sometimes felt a little clunky causing the performance to slow down at times, Robbie Bowman’s outstanding performance distracted from the occasional lulls.
Moving onto a production which is derived from another Gogolian short story, Louche Theatre took their production of The Bespoke Overcoat to Greenside venue this year. A common theme in such stories, the overcoat was a necessity, albeit an expensive one. In the harsh winters of Russia, or indeed in this case, of England, lack of a sufficient overcoat meant illness, or in extreme cases, death. Wolf Mankowitz’s Gogolian adaptation is a tale of suffering and struggling. Louche Theatre created a perfectly simple production that was loyal to the script, allowing the audience to completely immerse themselves in the heartbreaking story of Fender and his unfinished overcoat. One of Louche Theatre’s primary aims is to revive the one act classic play and bring it to a contemporary audience. This is undoubtedly an important thing to do at a time when other theatre companies are experimenting by creating modern and significantly relevant pieces of work. Plays like Diary of a Madman and The Bespoke Overcoat are true gems of theatre that, when done well, can be just as satisfying as a contemporary piece of theatre. How important it is to impress with classic pieces of work along with the new, and thankfully, these Welsh productions brought just that; a sign of Wales’ well rounded theatre culture.
As for the ‘new’ pieces of theatre, there were plenty. To begin with perhaps the most relevant piece up at the Fringe from Wales: The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning from National Theatre Wales. There was a lot of excitement surrounding the production judging by the atmosphere at the venue and talk on the Mile. Although the venue was a ten minute walk from the Udderbelly, it was completely perfect. Soldiers stood in classrooms, an alarming and discomforting sight. The hall brought special relevance to Bradley’s school scenes, and was easily adaptable for everything else. In terms of production, Bradley Manning had to be the most impressive. It was outstandingly well rehearsed, each scene and costume change seamless. Whatever your politics or opinions, the script was surprisingly quite neutral in its presentation of the subject matter. Understandably the way it is written and the perspectives written from means an inherent underlying portrayal runs throughout, but generally it wasn’t forced upon the audience. A fantastic ensemble cast, with Harry Ferrier as a stand-out Bradley, this production did Wales proud.
Playwright Tim Price had a busy year with two massive productions at two fantastic venues. I’m With the Band at Traverse tells the story of a band made up of four friends from four different countries: A Welshman, a Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman. Unfortunately these stock type characters thrown into an even more stock type script meant that the production did not deliver at all. The stereotypical, ignorant portrayal of Wales, or any of the countries in fact, was extremely frustrating. The narrative follows the decent of the band after Mr Scotland leaves, an over-exaggerated nod to Scotland’s independence. Following on from that, Mr Ireland starts drinking again and Mr Wales clings pathetically onto Mr England because he’s scared what will happen to him otherwise. The whole production was a fragmented, unsubtle attempt to portray the state of Britain, which was more infuriating than stimulating. A huge production blessed with an infamous venue, but unfortunately, I’m With the Band didn’t deserve any of it.
New, original work at the Fringe is always a risk, but can be a very pleasant one if you’re lucky enough. Wing it Dusty by the Drama Queens is an hour long original script with a surprise ending. Performed by Teresa Hennessy and Jennifer Scott-Reid, Wing it Dusty intrudes on the lives of two women on the morning of their wedding. After years together with little more than a love for Dusty Springfield in common, the two recount the challenges of their relationship on the morning of their big day. With a genuine shock ending, this was a well written comedy script with serious undertones running throughout.
Assembly Roxy, like Venue 13, housed three Welsh companies this year: L.O.V.E. by Volcano, The Bloody Ballad by Theatr Iolo and Gagglebabble, and Who’s Afraid of Rachel Roberts by Torch Theatre. Helen Griffin plays the part of Rachel Roberts, once a shy minister’s daughter, now a dried up old Hollywood Star ruined by drink and love. A production that was revived for the Fringe, there were concerns that the production may be similar to the recent Say it with Flowers which recounted the life of Welsh icon Dorothy Squires, even though Torch Theatre’s production came before Sherman Cymru’s. This wasn’t the case however. This story of Rachel Roberts was a one-to-one, deeply personal and heart moving experience. Griffin gives a fantastic performance as Rachel, delving uncomfortably into her wild antics, sharing too much from her past. The production, unlike the big Squires production, was small and intimate, a personal chat with Roberts herself as opposed to being cut off and distanced from her by a stage and other actors.
Everybody flocked to the Udderbelly to spend an afternoon with Sue. The gigantic poster loomed over the venue causing one woman to stop and exclaim, ‘Oh God! I had a fright then.’ Dafydd James’ sell out My Name is Sue was a testament to the comedy of the Welsh: ridiculous and hilarious. Made relevant to a Scottish audience, Sue sang her heart out to an unsuspecting audience. One of the best shows as the Fringe.
The beauty of the Fringe is that you can discover small companies, whether long established or just starting out, that have for some reason escaped your theatrical radar. When you discover a new company, it opens up a whole new door. It’s thrilling to be able to say that one of the strongest productions this year was from Tin Shed, a Newport based company who bring the classics to life with a grotesque comedy not unlike The League of Gentlemen. Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show is a gruesome retelling of Mary Shelley’s novel played out by a group of travelling Victorian freaks. Forced against their will to re-enact the classic tale by their cruel proprietor Julius M. Barker, Bethilda the Bearded Lady and Sangieve the Lobster Mind Reader perform an utterly hilarious and, at times, beautifully poignant show. Hilarious from start to finish, this fresh company will surely begin to gain recognition. One of the most important things to remember is, although you may be standing in a huge line at Traverse to see a sell-out show, you may experience something infinitely better in the small basement of the building. Publicity is what enables big companies to fill a venue, but it’s worth taking a risk and seeing something that has little or perhaps no publicity, because you may be surprised with what you experience.
As for the Welsh in Edinburgh, what did we bring? It seems we brought a very well-rounded, wonderfully varied catalogue of work this year. It’s not just important to bring a great quantity of productions, but to prove that we can bring classic work, relevant work, experimental work, silly work, impressive work … the list could go on. We may not have the best work in the opinions of some critics, but this year saw Welsh talent really proving that there was a lot going on in Wales. To be able to bring that to an international audience is a proud statement to the work happening in Wales at the moment. Wales was its own mini-festival this year, and some day this will be brought home. After we’re done showing off of course.