A48 Theatre Company production of The Bet by Owen Thomas - Chapter Arts Centre

The Bet by Owen Thomas | Review

After successful runs with award-winning plays Grav and Carwyn, Owen Thomas returns to Chapter Arts Centre with The Bet, which uses comic dialogue to tell the story of how a decision made by one man has wide-ranging consequences for both himself and everyone around him. Peter Gaskell went along to see this A48 production.

“Who hasn’t done something bad?” so lead actor Dion Davies addresses the audience when he walks solo onto the stage at Chapter to play The Man in The Bet. It is an engaging introduction, setting the premise that he is guilty of transgression, and so are we all. The initial monologue is followed by the appearance of The Chorus who in very un-Greek fashion don jockey caps and simulate riding race horses, astride chairs to accompany the backdrop of film showing the start of the 1990 Cheltenham Gold Cup. This is the race of Welsh legend won by 100/1 outsider Norton’s Coin. The Chorus then resolve into pairs to portray the aberrant behaviour of life in a small village community near Carmarthen, warmly reminiscent of Under Milkwood in its characterisation.

The inciting incident for this drama is The Man’s broken promise to place with his regular bookie the villagers’ bets on Norton’s Coin he has collected. The first act plays out with footage showing the race on the screen behind the Chorus who are cheering and commentating on their horse with increasing excitement as they gather as a group staring into the audience. The 30-minute interval allows time aplenty to speculate about The Man’s fate once he decides to come clean about failing to place the bets on the winning horse. Act 2 is about his efforts to assuage and compensate the hostility and disappointment of his community. His last pound coin he is willing to donate to Gamblers Anonymous, suggesting the root of his bad behaviour is addiction.

The play concludes with the chorus reiterating that Norton’s Coin is only entered last minute in the Gold Cup by mistake, as if pre-empting The Man’s mistake in failing to place the collective bet. The question tantalisingly remains as to why. Did he believe he was protecting his fellow-villagers by returning their stakes when their horse failed to win ( as himself being a habitual gambler he was sure was bound to) or was he intending to deceive by pretending he had placed the bet and keep the stakes for himself? The denouement does not resolve this but as it seems he remained rooted in the affections of the community, there suggests a gratifying outcome at least.

And gratifying it was that The Bet has premiered in Cardiff thanks to A48 Theatre Company and Chapter Arts Centre, in recognition no doubt of the writer’s skills to produce an entertaining drama comprising humour, wisdom, poetry and even some some acapella singing. Owen Thomas has pedigree, firstly for his script and screenplay Grav which won a BAFTA Cymru Award, then Carwyn, currently playing in New York. He is clearly attracted to the drama inherent in sport, and its poetic potential too, as exemplified by the monologue aligning the joy of racing a horse with the anticipation of a red kite’s dive toward its prey, a microscopic dot on the landscape below that is aware of the imminent swoop from the edge of the cloud on high.

The funniest moment was our anti-hero’s monologue at the start of Act 2 when he painted a picture of the universe running down. Our memories and moments of pleasure dissipate as eternal darkness finally eliminates all life and consciousness. His regret is this cannot come soon enough, the prospect of the day ahead trying to appease his community being “so shitty”. Dion Davies plays The Man perfectly, getting us onside with his challenge to us and his humorous philosophising (did Aristotle really say something profound about sausages?), while we continue to wonder about his motives and ability to dig himself out of a deep hole. Geraint Dixon also deserves a plaudit as the other actor who delivered effective monologue.

It is encouraging that A48 can deliver entertaining drama like this, beyond their regular alfresco Graveyard Voices productions in Cathays cemetery, and I look forward to the Hay Festival in May when we can hope to see a performance of Owen Thomas’s current work in progress.

The Bet played at Chapter Arts Centre.