When the world premiere of Gary Owen’s Killology played at the Sherman Theatre and Royal Court in spring 2017, it was the first time a major London venue had co-produced a play with a Welsh theatre. Awarded a five-star review from Lyn Gardner and a slew of other positive critical reactions, it can certainly be considered a success. Of course, it was no surprise that the Royal Court took an interest in Owen’s work. His previous play, Iphigenia in Splott has become near enough a cult classic of fringe theatre. Along with transferring to the National Theatre, it toured the UK and played in Berlin and New York.
Placing to one side Owen’s undeniable talent, this moment in the spotlight for Welsh theatre is about more than one playwright. The wider theatre culture is also blossoming. Under the leadership of Rachel O’Riordan, the Sherman Theatre has been – without hyperbole – transformed. When I interviewed her earlier this year for Exeunt, she emphasised their 33.5% increase in audience numbers. A neat fact I like to quote is how O’Riordan started the job in February 2014, not long after the annual Christmas show had to close early and not long before Cardiff Council announced it would stop funding the Sherman. Fast-forward to 2016 and audience demand compelled the theatre to extend the run of that year’s Christmas show. Add to this the success of National Theatre Wales – including their city-wide takeover for Roald Dahl’s centenary in 2016 – as well as Theatr Clwyd under Tamara Harvey. Then there’s Cardiff’s The Other Room, a thriving, high-quality pub theatre, and playwrights Brad Birch and Alan Harris regularly producing interesting works. And that’s all before you get to the sincerely brilliant actress Sophie Melville. The picture of Welsh theatre just keeps getting rosier.
A great time, then, to be capitalising on this excitement. One person who doesn’t need telling that is Rebecca Hammond, founder of Chippy Lane productions. Set up in 2016, the company champions works by Welsh creatives inside and outside of Wales. Accordingly, their projects to date have involved as many performances in London, where Hammond lives, as they have in Wales. This focus on bringing Welsh theatre to audiences in the wider UK chimes with the Sherman Theatre’s recent co-productions with both the Royal Court and Manchester Royal Exchange. Another point that O’Riordan was keen to stress when I met her was how important she believed these collaborations to be, not least because they help assert the seriousness of regional venues on a national scale.
There are also, as Hammond pointed out when we spoke, a considerable amount of Welsh people living outside of Wales, especially in London. Ignoring these people and concentrating only on Welsh playwrights in Wales could mean you miss out on some serious talent. Chippy Lane’s most recent venture, a two-part performance of short extracts in scratch, began at the London Welsh Centre on 27 June. Eight works-in-progress were performed with the audience casting votes for who would progress into the next round. The most popular four went on to Chippy and Scratch Does The ‘Diff at Chapter Arts in Cardiff on 18 July.
Introduced by Andrew David in English and Chris Harris in Welsh, the four finalists were Poppy Corbett with You Gotta Go There To Come Back; Neil Bebber with Tiny Mad Animals; Ruth Majeed with Outside Blisters and Kevin Jones with Cardiff Boy. Each play was shown as a twenty-minute segment with Corbett’s in particular feeling like the start of a bigger story and Majeed’s working pretty much perfectly as an independent snap-shot.
There was definitely a theme of Welshness extending to more than just the playwrights’ nationalities. Corbett’s play takes its title from its protagonist’s move from Wales to London, and the clearly mixed feelings she has towards her new life and the family she’s left back home. It also uses segments of basic Welsh and plays with all the familiar stereotypes – yes, she hates scones but loves Welsh cakes; her nan’s garden is full of daffodils. Outside Blisters, meanwhile, is more subtly Welsh, capturing both the intonation and slang of three drunk women outside a nightclub in the Valleys perfectly, and their disgust at the suggestion of moving to Cardiff.
Interestingly though, the play with the most overtly Welsh title – Cardiff Boy – is both entirely of the Welsh Capital and containing more universal features – a point that could also be made about Bebber’s two-hander. If you know Cardiff, or particularly knew it in the 90s, then there’s plenty to appreciate in the dropping of place names and in-jokes, but at heart this is a piece about male friendship, growing up and the changing cityscape, not just in Wales but across the UK. An engrossing and warm performance by Jack Hammett certainly helps matters, but it’s Jones’s focus on small details whilst maintaining a fast pace – plus a bunch of tunes that 90s kids will undoubtedly appreciate – that make it easy to see why this one was the overall winner in London.
The point of Chippy Lane’s yearly scratch competitions is to discover and nurture Welsh playwriting. There’s a few hiccups on the night and it’s only Cardiff Boy that feels like it could be easily turned into a full production in a short space of time. However, it’s important to recognise that it is grass roots projects like this that help genuinely create a thriving arts scene, not just the co-productions with the Royal Court. After all, you never know when you’re going to find the next Iphigenia in Splott.