The choice of first show for a brand new national theatre company is necessarily a political one. For a non-building based company like National Theatre Wales, the venue also assumes extra significance. With an opening performance called A Good Night Out In The Valleys touring miners’ institutes and workmens’ halls, Artistic Director John E McGrath has very deliberately planted the National Theatre flag in the heartlands of English-speaking Wales, perhaps leaving the company open to accusations of parochialism but ensuring an enthusiastic local response.
Outside the ‘Stute’ there is a palpable buzz. A burger van opposite the entrance, Bevan’s Meats and Treats, offers massages in addition to hot dogs and chips. A coffin is carried down the street. Inside, house band 4th Street Traffic play Stereophonics numbers. Punters and performers mingle at pub tables. The lights go down, an imported audience file to their seats at the back of the stage beyond a ragged green curtain, and without further ado Boyd Clack comes onstage in a yellow chicken suit. National Theatre Wales is born.
The emphasis is on variety. Bingo; a raffle; a few too many drinks; a fight; songs. From collected real life stories writer Alan Harris weaves a rich tapestry. Harris’ ear for accent and dialect connects, often raucously, with the intended – local – audience. Line after line, intonation and comic timing are as pitch perfect as they would be in any ‘Stute’ in south Wales on a Friday night. The show is a theatrical montage of valleys life but this slice-of-life play cuts deep as well as wide, playing the dysfunction of contemporary post-industrial life against a deep-seated awareness of the past. Kyle, son of a miners’ strike scab, has returned to his forefathers’ village, intent on revenge; the Stute is under threat from a newly proposed opencast mine. ‘We’ve always had the worst done to us, landowners, mine owners, ironmasters. It’s always been them and us.’
To anybody even vaguely familiar with the history of the coalfield, this is territory so familiar it is almost trite. What saves A Good Night Out from becoming just another depiction of working class life in a dead-end town is the careful balance of lyricism and laugh-out-loud comedy in the writing and the rich tonal diversity. Coupled with Angela Davies’ sensitive design – layered, sloping platforms reminiscent of higgledy-piggledy terraces clinging to the hillsides – the room fills with that curiously Welsh blend of ribaldry and melancholy.
There’s little that’s new in A Good Night Out In The Valleys; it is nothing if not exactly that: an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. ‘Nice to see this place full,’ says our host, to a huge murmur of assent. The ‘Stute’ is the star here. Having been many things to many people over the years – snooker hall, library and reading room, dancehall, arts centre – the building is integral to the production: ‘more than bricks and mortar’. The pennies miners paid week by week funded an ‘institute’, a philosophy of life as well as a building. NTW will be hoping the goodwill engendered by this crowd-pleaser institutes a new appetite for theatre in a nation now ready to engage with its future as well as its past.