Weston Studio, Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff
Glenys Evans' new play tells the inspiring tale of young Cardiff man Andrew Williams, who pursued his dream to climb to Everest Base Camp in 1996. Andrew has Down syndrome, and Evans highlights the challenges of embracing life outside the immediate family circle that so many adults with learning difficulties experience.
Hijinx is a professional theatre company who tour an annual production, designed to be entertaining and accessible to an inclusive audience. They have gained a reputation in Wales for high quality theatre: the Guardian have lauded the company as "small-scale perfection", who reliably produce "little masterpieces, miniatures where every aspect of the product is finely crafted."
Full Circle is just such a production. Evans' text is exquisite and with Gaynor Lougher's direction this is story-telling at its most affecting: simplistic; pared down, and for all that, an utterly captivating story, beautifully told.
Gareth Clark and Nick Wayland-Evans play Andy side by side for most of the play, speaking, moving and feeling in tandem. This is a fascinating device, and Gareth Clark, an actor with Down syndrome making his professional debut, is certainly a name to watch. He skilfully develops the character, showing Andy's growing confidence by degrees. Finally, as he leaves to fly to Nepal, Andy turns and waves goodbye not only to his mother and the other members of his circle of friends, but also to his alter-ego: from here on in he needs no-one to speak for him, no-one need chaperone him. He is entirely his own person, living his dreams and pulling his weight as a member of the expedition. And Gareth lets the triumph of this shine through his performance.
Andy asserts his right to pursue his own dreams, his own individuality, in spite of the misunderstandings of the earlier scenes ("It's not rocket science," neighbour Wilf (Rhys ap Trefor) says of his first circle of friends meeting. "You've just got to know what they like").
Andy's mother, an engaging performance from Clêr Stephens, expresses all the highs and lows of raising a child with disability. Her pride in her son is without dispute; her reluctance to let him go evident. To ask for help, she feels, is too hard: "To ask, you have to drop the mask".
This is a strong cast, without a weak link, and a production which has much to teach emerging playwrights and directors about clarity of story-line and character. The hustle and bustle of Nepalese street life, or the climb to Base Camp sequences, for example, are artfully choreographed, evocative scenes, achieved with minimum prop but maximum craft.
The real triumph of this production is that Andy's personal growth is allowed to take centre stage. He makes a powerful impact on the other members of his circle, who slowly find a pride in themselves they didn't have at the start of the play. His joyful pursuit of his dream permeates the entire cast. And it's infectious: a full house joins in his mother's rendition of 'We Are the Champions' with gusto, and by the curtain, there are grinning faces everywhere.
Full Circle achieves that rare combination: it's a play that is fully accessible to a learning disabled audience, and is simultaneously a powerful piece of theatre for the mainstream audience. That both are achieved is testament to the real skill of Hijinx Theatre Company. This production proves that inclusion, in every walk of life, is to the benefit of all. When a company aims to reach a fully inclusive audience, it hones its skills in story telling; in doing so it heightens the value of the production at every level.
"Full Circle" runs at WMC until 19th June, then tours to Swansea, Neath and Abergavenny.
Reviewer: Allison Vale