Sean Tuan John Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town

Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town | Live

Cath Barton is at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff to review Sean Tuan John’s production Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town.

Attracted by its billing as “a fusion of film, dance and performance that documents a strange, life-affirming and heart-breaking event in a small town in South Wales”, I sat and considered the set of Sean Tuan John’s Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town, before the house lights dimmed, in an optimistic mood. Three projectors, a screen in front of each one and a table and chair to one side – it could have been the set for an academic presentation, except for what I thought at first were small polystyrene balls scattered around the edge of the stage, and the domestic-style lamp-shades hanging from the ceiling.

Sean Tuan John Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town
Sean Tuan John in Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town

This show is described as being “created, performed and produced” by Sean Tuan John. So, a one-man show, it would appear. And he is indeed the only person live on stage, appearing first, suited but unbooted, in the guise of a slightly bumbling academic lecturer, complete with sheaf of lecture notes. His subject, he tells us, is the small town of Briton Ferry/Llansawel, between Neath and Port Talbot. Pictures of the town are projected onto the screens.

He recounts events from the town’s history, from its glory days when the docks were flourishing, to decline in the 1970s. And then introduces, on screen, the character of bachelor Professor Cedric Jenkins, who returned to the town of his birth in 2015 after 23 years of research work in an English institution. But, John tells us, Cedric is not the only character in this story. We are also to meet elderly town residents, Lillian Davies, Eileen Thomas and Mansel Edwards, supposedly streamed to us live from their homes. It is a flimsy conceit as all four characters are clearly actors.

The show proceeds as a mixture of interviews with the characters and dance/movement interludes. It becomes apparent from the first of these that what I had thought were polystyrene balls round the edge of the stage were actually meant to represent tablets – the pills that many elderly people typically have set out for them in variants of seven-day storage boxes. The on-screen characters pop open the compartments of their boxes in a semi-grotesque dance of life. As John’s chairbound dance becomes more exuberant, he wheels round and tips out a mass of tablets from the bottom of Eileen’s handbag. On screen Eileen says “It’s lovely, but I don’t know what it means,” and Mansel says, “It looks like bollocks to me.”

It is certainly an idiosyncratic and entertaining portrayal of the decline of elderly people, existing rather than living. Coming back to Briton Ferry and finding people so diminished, the professor – he tells us on film – decided to carry out an experiment to change time. He put a cocktail of chemicals into the reservoir and when people drank this water it briefly turned back the ageing process. On stage John now proceeds, in supposed real time, to offer his characters Lillian, Eileen and Mansel, glasses of water infused with that magical cocktail, to offer them once more that miraculous experience.

The characters are aroused, more or less sexually, Eileen ‘fruity’ and Mansel ‘horny’. The accompanying recordings of ‘The story of my life’ and ‘Baby you can light my fire’ are presumably intended to take them back to memories of younger days. I found this sequence – including as it did representations of two sausages in batter – profoundly male-centric.

Finding out more about John’s aesthetic is difficult – his website is ‘in development’ – but he is on record as being interested in inter-disciplinary and collaborative work. Both are on display in this piece. The uncredited actors who play the professor, Lillian, Eileen and Mansel are strong, their contributions on film powerful. The filming by Simon Clode is extremely well done and rehearsal director Bert Van Gorp has insured that the interactions between John and the characters in the supposed live streaming work smoothly.

This was a good idea for a show, let down in the execution by John’s stranglehold on the production, which for me stifled the inherent poignancy in the story. His movement sequences had an edgy intensity, but they were in effect interludes in the main story, that of the characters on film.

The uncredited technical team who worked on lighting and sound did an efficient job. It was a real shame that no programme was available for the audience (at least on the night I attended) listing all of those who make such a valuable contribution to a performance, as well as the actors playing the characters on film.

Let Love Make a Miracle of this Town

Sean Tuan John

Seligman Theatre
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

7th February 2018

Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.