Gareth Smith reviews the latest play from Daf James, Tylwyth; a co-production between Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and the Sherman Theatre.
The death of playwright Mart Crowley, author of The Boys in the Band (1968), was announced this week. His groundbreaking comedy-drama focused on a group of gay friends, rejecting the judgmental attitude characteristic of most pre-Stonewall representations and instead focusing on the characters’ ambitions, relationships and sense of community. It is possible to see parallels between Crowley’s play and Daf James’s Tylwyth at the Sherman Theatre. I’m not going to lower myself to a ‘Boyos in the band’ pun, but it is a modern and proudly Welsh exploration of gay life in the same honest, challenging and witty mould as Crowley’s landmark work.
Tylwyth is a sequel to Llwyth (2010), which explored the ‘tribe’ of the title as a group of twentysomething gay friends in Cardiff. In James’s new play, most of the original cast return to play older versions of the characters who are now facing middle-age and pressure to assimilate into the predominantly ‘straight’ institutions of marriage and child-rearing. The formerly hedonistic Aneurin (Simon Watts) has settled down with Dan (Martin Thomas) but finds himself questioning whether he can leave his past behind and adjust to parenthood. It is perhaps because many of the cast have already played these roles that the performances are uniformly strong – there is a chemistry between them that has clearly been honed over time.
While Daf James’ Tylwyth is partly about older men bemoaning the closure of beloved bars or the addition of several new letters to the LGBT rainbow, it is also much more than this. It does not simply present gay characters who are Welsh but rather argues for the inextricable links between these two facets of identity. This representation of a specifically Welsh – and Welsh-speaking – queerness is novel and the use of music to express such hybridity is particularly innovative. The excellent soundtrack provides an example of how Aneurin’s identity is a product of both church hymns and Churchill Way. Establishing links between Welsh-speaking and queer communities also allows the play to examine whether both have been subject to a gradual process of embourgeoisement. Rhys (Arwel Davies) mocks his friends for feigning oppression as Welsh speakers despite their middle-class lifestyles in terms that apply equally to their position as affluent gay men.
The Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru and Sherman Theatre play oscillates between tragedy and comedy with rapidity, often using one to temper the other. Most of the dialogue is razor-sharp, as characters affectionately one-up each another with smart puns and pithy remarks – the reference to Golwg as ‘the Welsh Daily Mail’ claimed one of the biggest laughs of the night. In stark contrast to this, a poignant speech by Dada (Danny Grehan) rightly points out that while LGBT+ people can now adopt and marry, many will still be afraid to hold a partner’s hand in public. The play touches on several complex issues (domestic abuse, chemsex, open relationships and HIV to name a few) and some of these can feel a little rushed in a 100-minute runtime. One particularly harrowing revelation towards the end of the drama does feel like it needed more room for digestion by both characters and audience. However, Tylwyth uses its humour to avoid the pretentious tone that might characterize a show with such broad and challenging themes and it instead often gleefully subverts audience expectations of familiar tropes. It is this careful balancing act, of depicting serious issues while appearing not to take itself too seriously, which makes Tylwyth such an enjoyable examination of modern, Welsh gay identity.
Tylwyth is on at the Sherman in Cardiff until March 13th.
Gareth Smith is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.