Spangled

Lynn Hunter, Bethan Morgan, David Prince

Mercury Theatre Wales

Chapter, Cardiff

From 30 April 2013 to 04 May 2013

Review by Othniel Smith

I recall a quote from the late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren in which he described discos as “temples of despair and loneliness”; this certainly chimes with my experience of such places. It was in this spirit that I attended the press night of Spangled. Mercifully, I left with a smile on my face.

Spangled is a devised work, inspired by director Bethan Morgan’s experiences on the rave scene in the early 1990s, based, to an extent, on interviews with clubbers and developed and researched by Mercury Theatre Wales over a period of months (an early version was presented as part of the “Incubator” scheme at the Wales Millennium Centre last year).

Every effort is made to immerse the audience in the nightclub ambience: we are led into the performance space through a darkened rear entrance and welcomed in by friendly door staff. The theatre is transformed into a dance floor; the first thing we see is Sian Davies’s Angel, writhing on a podium, lost in the pumping music. There is a DJ desk, a bar, a cloak-room, and a couple of other raised performance areas, but much of the action takes place amongst the audience. Video screens display abstract images (courtesy of video artist Holly Genevieve) as well as some of the drama (and, briefly, a distracting technical error message).

The plot takes us through one night in the club. We meet Angel, who only feels truly alive when dancing; as well as her friend Donna (Holly Fry), who has ambitions to be a club DJ, her idol being the cynical turntablist Johnny (Lee Mengo). Donna’s boyfriend, the inappropriate-rugby-shirt-wearing (at least at first) newcomer Sean (Jason Marc-Williams) has come looking for her; his friend Gary (Rhys Downing) ensures that he receives some “medication” for his headache from the lairy Steve (Jason May), who is Angel's mother’s boyfriend.

Each character is given an elucidatory monologue, in which we learn of their insecurities and motivations. Gary, for example, has finally found a place where he can forget his past as a victim of bullying; Johnny, on the other hand, has been seduced by the easy money, drugs and women inherent (apparently) to the DJ lifestyle, and has lost his way.

All of the cast wear mics, which often cut out; thus we hear just enough dialogue to figure out what is going on (it might even have been less frustrating to further simulate the nightclub experience by paring speech down to the absolute minimum, giving us only tantalising glimpses of the characters’ lives). Such details as we hear seem to tend towards the hackneyed; although this is perhaps inevitable, as our heroes seek to transcend the mundane.

There is more than enough story to engage us. Sean, in his “spangled” state, finally “gets” the clubbing experience and the naive Donna inspires Johnny to focus on the music rather than the peripheral pleasures. Inevitably, there is a drug-related collapse, which seems to be resolved in a non-fatal manner; this is not presented with great clarity (unless I missed something).

The performances, from a largely unfamiliar ensemble, are fine, although the sound issues don’t help. Dan Young’s lighting design is impressive; even more so is the live (one presumes) DJ set provided by Jimpy, ebbing and flowing to suit the action, and falling silent at crucial points. Perhaps fittingly for a piece which celebrates the clubbing experience, the most effective moments are those, provided by choreographer Phil Williams, which highlight the collective, euphoric rave ethos.

While I was not quite ecstatic as we were bundled out into the night with authentic unceremoniousness, there was certainly a degree of uplift. Spangled packs a lot into an hour and, while dramatically flawed, is a bold and innovative attempt to recreate the rave experience in a manner which draws in those to whom it is an alien world.

Following the Cardiff run, Spangled tours to Aberystwyth, Swansea, Newport and Merthyr Tydfil.