Jafar Iqbal reviews Cardiff Boy at Red Oak Theatre, a look at life as a working class teen in 90’s East Cardiff, exploring themes of love, loss, and sexuality.
Cardiff Boy started out life as a scratch piece in 2017 and, since then, the artists at the centre of its creation have made major strides. Writer Kevin Jones has just been announced as one of BBC Writersroom’s Welsh Voices; director Matthew Holmquist is a part of Sherman Theatre’s JMK Directors Group; and actor Jack Hammett can already list National Theatre Wales, Dirty Protest and Theatre503 in his professional credits. If further justification was needed for why these three artists have achieved so much in such a short space of time, then this full-length version of Cardiff Boy is it.
Cardiff Boy explores what it was like to grow up in working class East Cardiff in the 1990s. Untainted by social and digital media, life barely stretches our of the city limits for these teenagers. It’s a world of cassette tapes, Britpop and Harrington jackets, a world where going to university in another city is akin to moving halfway across the world. Hammett is our window into this world, the ‘artsy fartsy’ one of a group of boys becoming men. While his friends want to get drunk and go out partying for the rest of their lives he follows behind with camera in hand, capturing it in all its glory. It’s one of those nights that the audience follow him on, and what ensues is detailed in a superb hour of drama.
While its not just their accomplishment, it would be remiss not to begin with an appreciation for Jones, Holmquist and Hammett. This team of three have been there from the very beginning, and their connection to the piece – and to each other – is ever-present in the final product. It’s a prime example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Jones’ script is soaked in nostalgia, relying on references and experiences that everyone can relate to. Experiences as small as a hug from your mates, and as large as the realisation that those mates will not always be there. The play is very much of Cardiff but, like so many other coming-of-age stories, it could be a story set in any working-class area of the UK.
Weaved into the narrative are themes of love, sexuality, toxic masculinity and loss, the fear of all of those things present in Hammett’s performance. The young actor is mesmeric as the titular lead, displaying a maturity and nuance far beyond his years. He’d already shown in Lightspeed at Pembroke Dock that he could do sentimentality, but that’s taken up several notches here. It’s remarkable just how much he is able to convey through a brief smile or a vacant stare into the distance, a testament to the care and attention he’s clearly given to character development. In the final moments of the play, he breaks down and the audience sees real anger for the first time. It’s utterly heartbreaking.
All of that is marshalled by Holmquist, himself showing an aptitude for direction that belies his experience. April Dalton turns the constantly-evolving auditorium of The Other Room into the mock-up of a nineties pub, albeit with photos of Cardiff hanging off the walls. It seems very cluttered at first but, once Ryan Stafford’s lighting comes into full force, it all makes sense. As Hammett reminisces on times gone by, the lights flicker over the images, creating a beautiful and ethereal atmosphere. Josh Bowles continues to impress with his sound design, this time contributing to the play with a blend of original compositions and iconic songs from the era. The likes of Pulp, New Order and The Cure amp up the nostalgia, with the music a character in itself. Does Holmquist use these songs to deliberately pull at the heartstrings? Of course he does, but that’s exactly what the play sets out to do.
There’s so much more to unpack in this outstanding piece of theatre and, ultimately, that is Cardiff Boy’s greatest strength. No two people will respond in the same way, the emotional resonance unique to each audience member. It’s a play both rooted in time, yet timeless; an experience to be shared, yet so achingly private too. And above all, its just an incredible hour of theatre, one not to be missed.
Cardiff Boy is on at The Other Room until November 11th.
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Jafar Iqbal is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.