This spring, Theatr Iolo and Theatr Genedlaethol have joined forces for the much-anticipated adaptation of Alys Conran’s award winning novel Pijin/Pigeon. Following her interview with playwright Bethan Marlow, Emma Schofield was at the Sherman Theatre as the play visited for the second-leg of its Wales-wide tour.
It’s always difficult to know what to expect from the stage play of a book that immediately became such a stand-out novel from the year in it was published. In its novel form, Pijin/Pigeon was published simultaneously in Welsh and English, with the two languages merging and colliding to weave a narrative which explores the connection between the language we speak and the identity we carve for ourselves.
An enormous effort has been put into translating the complex linguistic elements of the novel, into a bilingual theatre setting. Integrated captioning, projected onto slate-effect scenery above the stage, not only provides translation for those who need it, but also gives the words an added significance as they, quite literally, hang over the characters’ heads. It’s an approach which feels natural and fitting, especially given Pijin’s own fixation with language and his use of words to calm him in moments of anger and fear.
The play remains faithful to the novel in its focus on Pijin (Owen Alun), a young man who uses his imagination and his love of words to distract himself from the horrors of his home life, with a violent step-father (Carwyn Jones) and a mother (Lisa Jên Brown) who has been worn into submission by relentless abuse and fear. Pijin spends much of his time with best friend Iola (Elin Gruffydd), who is lively and impetuous, swept up in the imaginative stories Pijin tells her. The pair are instantly likeable, but troublesome, allowing their childish imaginings to lead them into an unprovoked attack on local ice-cream seller, Gwyn, who they have convinced themselves is a paedophile. Their plan to trick and ensnare Gwyn ultimately sets in motion a chain of events which brings their world crashing in around them, with Bethan Marlow’s stage play managing to capture the duo’s sense of bewilderment as events spiral rapidly out of control.
Visually, there’s a little too much distraction from the nuances of this story caused by the ever-changing set structures. The staging centres on the use of a metal structure which is manoeuvred around the stage by the cast in between scenes, often quite unnecessarily. In reality, these frequent changes serve very little purpose and the setting for the scenes could quite easily have been conveyed without the need for the constant movement of props and structures. For a show which features just five actors and runs for around 90 minutes, the volume of scenery and props involved feels confusingly cluttered. There is no mistaking the energy in the production, but that same energy could perhaps have been better-used away from the repeated set changes.
A sudden change in the way the action is staged towards the end of the play feels similarly jerky. Throughout Pijin/Pigeon the violence of Him towards Pijin and his mam hangs in a the air as a threat; the fact that the violence is not actually shown feels poignant. Earlier in the play a key scene involving four of the characters, and culminating in a murder, is made more uncomfortable by the fact that the main perpetrator of that violence, Him, is only present in voice – his attack on Pijin and his Mam is mimed by Alun and Brown. Towards the end of the play we see this scene played out again, this time with Him involved and the actual violence shown. It’s a staging decision which seems abrupt and takes something away from the nuance of those earlier scenes.
Nonetheless, at the heart of Pijin/Pigeon is a story about innocence lost, far too soon and much too abruptly, as events spiral wildly out of control and a prank leads to an accident with life-changing consequences for all involved. Pijin too is lost, a young man who is forced to repeatedly learn that it is safer to conceal his intelligence and sensitivity behind a carefully constructed mask of indifference. Owen Alun projects that complexity superbly and the interplay between him and Elin Gruffydd’s Iola is natural and entirely believable. As events and unfold and much of Pijin’s growing frustration becomes entangled with his sense of betrayal at Iola, who quietly abandons him in his hour of need, the resentment and guilt which hangs over the two characters ramps up the tension in the final scenes.
It’s also worth a nod in the direction of Nia Gandhi, who takes on a tricky role as Cher, the step-sister that Pijin resents for taking his room in the house and leaving him relegated to the shed, but who is desperate to befriend Pijin and Iola. Against the chaos and noise of Pijin and Iola’s imaginative plans, Gandhi’s Cher is a quietly-spoken force who determinedly attempts to hold her ground and assert her own sense of identity, even after she falls victim to a significant head injury as a result of Pijin and Iola’s prank on ice-cream seller, Gwyn. Her characterisation of Cher is a moving addition to a young cast who are clearly fully-committed to bringing the story to life. Cher’s recovery and struggle to fit in is just one of a number sensitive plotlines which Pijin/Pigeon, rightly, refuses to shy away from.
The Theatr Iolo influence is clear in the youth and energy which radiates from the stage throughout and it’s undeniably moving to see the emotion which was so palpable in Alys Conran’s novel, brought to life so enthusiastically on stage. The skill, and power, of storytelling is key to Pijin/Pigeon and its title character; bringing that power to life and exploring how we capture it, on stage, is without doubt, something we need to see more of across our theatres.
Pijin/Pigeon is on tour at venues across Wales until the 25th March. Ticket information is available here.
You can read Bethan Marlow in Conversation about Pijin/Pigeon, here.