Amy Louise Watkins reviews Anthem, a Welsh-language musical comedy about a competition to find the nation’s next singing star.
Last Thursday at Wales Millennium Centre’s Weston Studio, it was also Saturday night. Anthem, a piece of theatre which imagines the nation’s largest televised singing competition, transforms prime time TV into a newly Welsh, theatrical affair. Written by Llinos Mai, who co-composed alongside Dan Lawrence, this production follows the filming of Anthem’s live final, as the four competitors compete for the grand title, both on and off stage.
Anthem’s vibrant set nails the world of Saturday night TV with bright lights and big screens. As show time nears, we are thrown into the full behind-the-scenes bustle of production and star power with a camera technician preparing the stage for the live final. Giving the show a meta edge, there’s a sense that we really have come to see the finale of a prime time phenomenon with access to all areas. That feeling is only intensified as the lights dim and Tudur (Gwydion Rhys) – Anthem’s answer to Dermot O’Leary – announces the start of the final.
Performed in Welsh, the show is suitable for Welsh learners, too, with English subtitles displayed on screens at both ends of the stage. The magnetism of the actors’ performances transcends the need for perfect translation with the subtitles becoming more support, than necessity for audience members. With lyrics displayed to encourage sing-alongs from the audience (though, as alluded to in an earlier number, the audience don’t need much encouragement, unable to resist joining in). Spattered with comedy, the one-liners land and add to the atmosphere – but best of all is the satire itself, nailing some of the key tropes of the ubiquity of global singing competitions.
As the finalists join together from every corner of Wales, we get an X-Factor-styled glimpse into their lives and why they are competing. With one-liners mocking well-known television hosts and their over-enthusiastic attitudes, Anthem has some biting parody at its heart. This is most prevalently seen via Gerard (Rhys ap Trefor), the finalist representing the north region. One running joke insists that Gerard was adopted and has grown up in Dyfnaint (Devon) and believes he is biologically Welsh. Keeping the DNA results for a big reveal on the live final, it is clear that Gerard intends to formulate a sob story for votes. If he’s Welsh, the nation will be cheering alongside him. If he isn’t? The nation will pity him. This is what Anthem does best – taking TV cornerstones and translating them into comical, Welsh counter-narratives.
From the production manager missing the final due to being stuck in traffic in mid Wales, to the fear of the Eisteddfod Pavilion, Anthem is awash with the oddities of Welsh culture; an equal parts affectionate and hilarious depiction of our homeland. Iestyn Arwel, in particular, shines as Leon, a former rugby player whose performance was as impressive as it was catchy. Arwel’s powerful voice commands the audience so that for a moment you forget where you are. Living with his partner, Steve, and his two adopted children, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots and link his character back to rugby player Gareth Thomas, who has been openly gay since 2009. Dressed in a non-professional rugby kit, Arwel struts about the stage equal parts shy, burly and full of attitude.
Leilah Hughes is particularly amusing as Megs, the chaotic show runner who is thrown into the technical room, inexperienced, when the team is stuck on the A470 in the Brecon Beacons. Chaos ensues all while a desperate Tudur tries to hold the show together. The chemistry between Hughes and Megs is pivotal to the effectiveness of this performance – with Megs inadvertent interruptions through the speakers and a long string of mess ups (from snapped nails to spilled smoothies) as Hughes plods on with gritted teeth. A blend of the chaotic and the absurd, Anthem delights in mess and joy – instructions suggest we cheer, clap and sing, but we’re already doing so anyway.
Anthem is showing at Wales Millennium Centre until 30th July.