Operation Julie | Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Operation Julie | Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Candy Bedworth reviews Operation Julie, an anarchic musical telling the true story of how an extensive drug ring was busted in Tregaron in the ‘70s. 

An enormous gnarled tree spans the entire stage, the ground is a dizzying swirl of pink and blue tie dye. Behind a gauzy veil, musicians quietly arrive and hypnotic sound builds – bass then flute, drums then trumpet, reaching a crescendo: Operation Julie is underway. ‘Lift the veil and open your minds, shake the world awake’ we are commanded – and the crowd is hooked. Operation Julie is a high energy, roller-coaster ride through an epic period in recent Welsh history. We’ve heard the facts, the fiction, the retrospectives and the might-have beens. If you want a detailed history of the biggest LSD drugs bust in UK history, look to the myriad books, TV series and media coverage. But if you want to feel the heat, energy and the vibe of that astonishing story wash over you, then head to the theatre and check out Operation Julie.

The Operation Julie cast are superbly talented. And Musical Director Greg Palmer is nothing short of a rock god as these performances are astonishing. Ironically, against such expressive and exciting musical spectacle, the dialogue at times feels stagey, or inserted simply to move the story along. But truly, this is a splendidly realised piece of theatre. The Theatr na nOg team have created a glorious performance piece. Kudos also to the Aberystwyth Arts Centre team, and to Lighting Designer Nick Bache for their contribution to the staging of Operation Julie.

Every scene change is fast and smooth. The sets are inventive – I particularly enjoyed the harum scarum car based pub crawl with Sion Russel Jones as Bob Dylan (yes, that Bob Dylan) in the back seat. We see outstanding performances by everyone in the cast, but particular mention must go to Georgina White as Christine Bott and also to Caitlin Lavagna, who plays a dizzying number of roles, but manages each perfectly. Both women have mesmerising voices.

Stella the goat was the only wooden performance (folks, can we try a real goat one day? Yes, it could be pandemonium, but the audience would love it!). Steve Simmonds as Thames Police Officer Dick Lee seemed to be channelling David Jason a little too much, but watch him tear off his shirt and tie and rock out with a blistering electric guitar jam! Star of the evening however is Steffan Rizzi as Alston ‘Smiles’ Hughes: drug dealer, hippy and all-round rogue. Rizzi is an assured and confident performer, and a dazzling electric violin player.

The comedy is slapstick – puns that would have gone down well in the 1970s, when the musical is set, feel uncomfortable today. I would expect more from celebrated writer and director Geinor Styles than gay jokes and ‘you can say that again’ quips. They sat uneasily next to her intelligent character sketches and deft directing. Of course, you might say it’s Shakespearean to dash from dark philosophical musings to fart jokes.

It’s a mixed audience in a sell-out show, and the crowd is loud, they are loving this. They laugh, they join in with the Welsh song Oes Gafr Eto, they dance. But there are adroit changes of pace and tone too – actor Joseph Tweedale’s heart-felt, impassioned pleas for us to see what is happening to the planet, to consider our futures, are moving. His final speech, taken word for word from a manifesto written by the real Richard Kemp back in 1970, are back-dropped by rolling news of our planet’s decline. Utterly prescient. In an interesting aside, we are told that this declaration was ignored by the world’s media, and printed only by the local Cambrian News.

I spoke to a handful of mid-Wales based family and friends who grew up with the Operation Julie story as a local legend. Most claim the hippies who came fitted in well – they wanted to settle, raise families, grow food. Others feel that their counter-cultural ways raised eyebrows in government circles. A Tory government most definitely did not want whole communities to ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’. Perhaps most heart-rending of all the conversations I had was with someone who had seen families broken by Operation Julie – Dad or Mum (remembered as kind, loving, gentle) taken in a violent dawn raid, then in jail for a decade, with the repercussions casting a cloud over families and futures.

We end Operation Julie with a well-deserved standing ovation and a raucous encore of Purple Haze by the whole ensemble. What a blast: we are both sated and buzzing. This story may be four decades old, but tonight it feels vivid and fresh and wild.

Next day I drive through Tregaron, home of the 2022 National Eisteddfod – the beating heart of Welsh culture and language. And perhaps once the base for a potentially world changing revolution? Of course, LSD has become almost respectable now, used in trauma therapy and to treat PTSD. On the radio I listen to news of global fire and flood. Maybe a performance of Operation Julie, and a dose of LSD might help nudge our esteemed world leaders back on track right now? I’d love to change the world…

Operation Julie continues at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until August 13th, moves to Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon August 24th to 26th, and then on to The Lyric, Carmarthen August 31st to September 2nd.