Grace Patrick travelled to the Vault Festival to witness a play which is both deeply funny and very discomforting, The Wrong Ffion Jones.
The commodification of culture is an age old problem, one that sometimes feels like an integral part of British (or perhaps English) culture. One need only look at the centuries-long history of British colonialism to recognise that we’re far from the best at engaging respectfully with cultures separate from our own. By taking the extremes of colonialism, for example the destruction of any cultural authenticity for the sake of tourism, or the practice of underpaying local people with a useless currency, and putting them onto a familiar British landscape, The Wrong Ffion Jones manages to be both deeply funny and very discomforting.
The scenario may feel ridiculous: with the entire country of Wales transformed into a theme park-of-sorts, sheltered under a nuclear protection dome as a result of some unnamed incident, the real world feels pretty far away. While the nuclear protection dome part isn’t coming true just yet, it’s hard to ignore the culture of retail attached to heritage sites across the country. There’s a gift shop and a museum for the slate mines at my home in North Wales, and there’s a cafe at both the bottom and the top of Snowdon. It’s part and parcel of what people expect to see, and so that’s what we’re provided with. While The Wrong Ffion Jones’ concept goes significantly further than reality, it has a ring of familiarity to it.
But this isn’t just an ‘us against them’ story of the heroic and cohesive underdogs overthrowing an oppressor, but also a nod to the fact that societies would be nothing without the diversity that exists within them.
On stage, Ffion Jones (the actor and writer shares her name with her tourist guide creation on stage) is remarkable to watch. The show runs at just under and hour, and she does not stop moving within that time. Flitting between an ever-growing array of personae and accents, it’s really her unstoppable energy that lets this piece work. It – and she – constantly moves at a million miles an hour, barely stopping to breathe, let alone take stock. In general, this relentless pace wins out, although there are a few moments at which the speed of the storytelling makes it a bit challenging to keep up with. The number of different layers at work here are also very impressive, with Jones’ nods to a whole range of film and story tropes making it very hard to put this show into any easy box. It’s a parody of sorts, but even that label doesn’t quite cover it. The success of the show is its energy, and its refusal, just like its performer, to be pinned down. The very simple staging, made up of three chairs and a projector screen, means that the entire piece really does rely exclusively on Jones, and this is a pressure under which she appears to thrive.
Under the guise of comedy, Jones is providing some extremely pertinent commentary on what it means to identify with a culture, and the many shapes that loyalty to that culture can take. How can we reconcile our own wants and needs with the demands of a system which shapes our entire world? This show is absolutely hilarious, but it also left me with a lot to think about.
The Wrong Ffion Jones was performed as part of the Vault Festival in London.
Grace Patrick is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.