The Newport Monologues

The Newport Monologues review
The Newport Monologues
A Riverfront co-production with Feel Good Newport,
Written and directed by Josie d’Arby with additional monologues from Rachel Meades.

I have a soft spot for Newport. My father was brought up in Pillgwenlly. He tells me tales of swimming in the Usk in a woollen bathing suit, and of running to the top of Marian Street to Fred’s bake house for bread pudding and finger rolls for breakfast, straight from the oven.  Once a week, after school, my grandmother would give my father a large bowl, which he’d carry up Adeline Street for old Mrs Minty to fill with faggots from a tray and peas from the cauldron that swung from her black lead grate over a blazing coal – it cost half a crown. He tells me how his grandmother’s house was split in two by a German bomb, and how he lay on top of his brother in the school yard during an air raid. It was stories like these I was expecting to hear at the Riverfront. I expected to hear how Newport fared when she wasn’t Cardiff’s poorer sister. When Newport was a community. When she was a town.

The Newport Monologues told the stories of a diverse selection of people. Five actors took on thirteen characters and did a superb job of giving us an insight into their lives. Andreas Constantinou portrayed an Indian boy uprooted by his parents and brought to Newport by boat, Rose Shepherd narrated a Jamaican woman’s journey to Newport for work, Paul Jenkins gave us the ghost of poet W.H. Davies, Natalie Paisey and Isla Johns played rival grandmothers having a day out at the park.

But as interesting as these stories were, they were not about Newport. These characters could have been from any town in any country. I wanted details: street names, shop names, school names. I wanted to hear what these people did in Newport – but, for the most part, the monologues told the characters’ history. I wanted Newport history. I wanted to hear about the people who’d ‘never been to the top of town’: I wanted my father up there telling stories. The audience, though reluctant, at first, to clap or laugh, towards the interval, began to warm to the actors and were soon enjoying themselves, and I wondered if, perhaps, I’d got the wrong end of the proverbial stick. Was I missing the point?

The play began with a ‘planning meeting’ and I expected to hear how Newport could be improved in 2012.  I wanted the characters to argue and debate. But this wasn’t a real council meeting and the show was for entertainment purposes only.

It’s ten years since Newport became a city. The monologues were based on recent interviews with real Newport citizens.  There were topical references to Bouncers (the TV programme that showed Newport club life at its worst; the big Tesco (that had ‘appeared like a mothership’) and free carrier bags. Isla Johns – who, ironically, was born and bred in Cardiff – gave a powerful and heart-rending performance as the Newportonian teenager who fell under the spell of an American soldier; with her Newport accent (a peculiar mix of West Country and Cardiff) she stole the show.

I feel for Newport – probably too strongly; she’s been dealt a bad hand. Recently I was contacted and asked by the group Say it About Newport, an initiative set up to find out what Newportonians really think about their city and what they would say to Newport City Council if asked their opinion. I was asked to write something using the words of those people, many of whom think the best thing about Newport is the M4 out.

The Newport monologues pledged a ‘touching, heart-warming, inspiring and humorous night where you stand to learn a lot more about Newport and your neighbours than you perhaps thought possible.’  From the actors, to the stories, to the audience, this project promised to be Newport through and through. But for me it didn’t deliver. In the words of my father: ‘Newport people were poor but not dirty. They were okay. Newport was all right.’ And she still could be but she needs help.