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Posts Tagged ‘Emlyn Williams’

Welsh actor-writer Emlyn Williams wrote fifteen plays (including one adaptation) over a twenty year period between the mid 1930’s and 1950’s, many adapted into films. For some reason they are rarely revived; this is only the fourth produced in London during my forty or so theatre-going years here. I suspect this one could seem a bit stodgy more than eighty years on, but Dominic Cooke’s inventive production is very fresh, despite still being set in the same period.

Firstly, he brings the the playwright onto the stage from his 1930’s party, providing stage instructions, narrating and at one point changing the plot. Secondly, he adds a chorus of miners, a small group dressed like they’ve just completed their shift, who add a deeply emotional layer (well, for a Welshman at least) and tell you everything you need to know about the community in which the story is set. At first, without a set and just a few props, it’s a piece of storytelling, but it eventually transforms into a realistic room as if a painting was nearing completion, or indeed the production of a play evolving.

Miss Moffat is an English woman of means who chooses this community for her project to bring education to the working classes. There is resistance from the local squire, who scuppers her plans to turn a neighbouring barn into a school, but she recruits two locals to help her and sets up anyway on a smaller scale in a room in her rented home. Her pupils are young miners, one of whom stands out and he becomes a very specific and personal project, with the objective of getting him a scholarship to Oxford. By now, the squire has melted and the boy, Morgan Evans, becomes a beacon for advancement by the local community, who are now rooting for their boy. He makes it, but his plans are endangered by a ghost from his past. By now, though, Miss Moffat and her colleagues will do anything to ensure he makes the journey.

It’s clearly semi-autobiographical, a tribute to Williams’ own teacher and mentor Miss Cooke, which is partly why the inclusion of the writer, though initially uneasy, works well. The production draws you in to the point where you are rooting for Morgan too, virtually part of this community. I found it deeply moving at times, but that might be because I’m a miner’s son from the South Wales valleys, though if nothing else, the music will move anyone with a heart.

Nicola Walker is perfect as the emotionally controlled, even repressed, teacher, a contrast to the passion of Richard Lynch’s fellow teacher John Goronwy Jones, a lovely performance. Iwan Davies makes a superb professional stage debut as Morgan, capturing everyone’s heart. Gareth David-Lloyd (unrecognisable from his turn as Ianto in Torchwood – one of the few dead TV characters with a shrine, in Cardiff Bay!) is excellent as the 30’s society figure which Williams by then had become. There were a number of cast changes at the performance we saw, with two covers carrying their script, but this had no negative impact; if anything, given the production style, it seemed oddly appropriate. Will Stuart’s uplifting music makes more of a contribution than in any other production I can remember.

I’m probably biased, with shared heritage, albeit a few decades apart, but I loved both the play’s themes and this creative interpretation. The NT on great form.

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The Finborough Theatre has a knack of rediscovering forgotten plays and this is a particularly fascinating one, not seen here for seventy-five years, which gets as fine a production as you could wish for.

Emlyn Williams was writing in the second world war about events ninety years earlier, at the time of the Crimean War. It’s set in a mountain village in North Wales where Dilys has been widowed by that war, whilst her niece Menna has found love with someone returning from it. The other members of her household are her servant Bet and Bet’s teenage son Gwyn. Village teacher Ambrose, who left and made a new life as a circus proprietor in Birmingham, has returned in search of an attraction for his shows, following his assistant Pitter, who is researching his book on this village, where a disaster left it without children and faith. There’s an outbreak of cholera at the military hospital that threatens the life of Menna’s new man, and young Gwyn displays spiritual powers. The village seems to have found faith once more, Ambrose born again and there is an influx of followers.

It seems to be a parable about war and healing, a fascinating, intriguing period piece which may not appeal to everyone in a contemporary audience, but whatever you think of it, Will Maynard’s production is simply superb, having to convey as much offstage as on. He’s given it a traverse staging, complemented by an excellent set and costumes from Ceci Calf & Isobel Pellow respectively. A hugely atmospheric soundscape and music by Justin Starr & Rhiannon Drake adds much. A uniformly fine cast is led by Rhiannon Neads as Dilys, with newcomer Kristy Philipps very impressive as Menna. Benedict Barker’s role as Gwyn is mute but he does a great job of conveying its mystery and spirituality.

The Finborough punching above its weight again. A must see.

 

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I missed this at regular haunt The Finborough Theatre three years ago; it was hard to get a ticket because it had someone from the Archers in it! So gold stars to young producers Nicola Seed and Sarah Loader for bringing this first London revival of Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play to St James Theatre. Given the events since the Finborogh outing, it may well be even more timely.

Highly successful novelist William Trenting leads a double life as Bill Trent, with the full knowledge and support (but not participation) of his wife Rona. He has a bedsit in Rotherhithe where he engages in morally dubious practices, including orgies, with his drinking pals from the Blue Lion and others who may be paid to participate. The play opens on New Years Day when he adds a knighthood to his Nobel Prize (a touch implausible for a 50’s novelist with seedy themes?). People visit and call to offer congratulations, including Rona’s best friend Marian and Phyllis and Harold from the Black Lion, salt of the earth swingers! His world begins to fall apart three months later on the eve of his investiture when his publisher tells him his activities may no longer be private. Then a blackmailer arrives, but he’s far from being your average blackmailer.

It must have been a real shocker in 1950 and its surprising it even got through the Lord Chamberlain, the censor of the time. Less racy fare by people like Terence Rattan had cuts, but Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams seems to have cleverly steered his play to acceptability. It feels pretty contemporary today, covering themes of privacy, celebrity and exploitation of the young. It you updated the costumes and dialogue, you could probably pass it off as a new play, which is extraordinary for something that’s 64 years old. Blanche McIntyre’s impeccable production manages the changes of tone and mood extremely well.

A faultless cast is led by Alexander Hanson as Trenting, a fine performance in a role that suits him very well indeed. Abigail Cruttenden makes you believe Rona’s love for him withstands what other wives wouldn’t tolerate. Jay Taylor and Olivia Darnley are so lovely as the Harold and Phyllis, you rather wish they frequented your local. Jay Villiers is excellent as stern, humourless but loyal publisher Thane and Bruce Alexander is wonderful (and surprisingly funny) in the key role of ‘blackmailer’ Daker. Daniel Crossley is great as retainer Albert – secretary, chauffeur, butler & more – who many years ago found his way from the pub to the home and has loyally served the Trenting’s since. There’s a lovely cameo from Claire Fox as Marian and a hugely impressive performance from Sam Clemmett as son Ian. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

I’ve so enjoyed the Finborough finds and was very disappointed to miss this there, but I’m delighted to see it transfer and to see such a good play get such a fine production further west, if not completely ‘up west’. More Emlyn Williams revivals, please!

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