A Good Night Out in the Valleys
National Theatre Wales
Blackwood Miners' Institute and touring
The National Theatre Wales has at last thrown open its doors in true Valleys' style. At least, it has thrown open the doors of the Blackwood Miners Institute, built in the 1920s with a 3d a week sub from the wages of local miners.
And Alan Harris' triumphant A Good Night Out in the Valleys starts even before you reach your seat. I arrived at the steps of the Institute to find myself in a throng of people. Locals greeting each other by first names standing shoulder to shoulder with critics from the Dailies, who'd all been bussed in from the station in Cardiff.
The smell of chips wafted over us all from 'Bevans Meats and Treats', the burger van-cum-massage parlour parked up across the road. And an old lady in a vast leopard skin coat bustled her way into the middle of us all and parked herself, and her little stuffed terrier on wheels, on the bottom step.
"A'right, love?" she calls to someone at the back of the crowd. Next thing, the glamorous gran calls out to a young guy in a padded anorak, but the chap's too distracted by what's going on down the road.
"They've just taken that coffin into the caff," he exclaims, astonished. "Is that hygienic?" All heads turn: and he's right. Six pall bearers are just disappearing with coffin raised to their shoulders, into the Sirhowy Café just down the road.
It's all a little surreal - I could see the bemusement playing out on one or two critics' faces. Is this performance? Or is it normal for a Friday night in the Valleys?
It is, of course, all part of Alan Harris' homage to the pivotal role the Welsh Valleys' Miners institutes have played in cementing troubled communities through good times and bad. And it's an inspired choice that the evening begins first on the streets and only then spills into the theatre. The best way to experience that sense of community, after all, is to become a part of it. The audience sit on and around the stage, and throughout the course of the evening, are treated to stand-up, cabaret and bingo. At the interval, tea, chips and pickled onions complete the picture. This is, then, just another night out at the 'Stute.
Against this backdrop, Alan Harris's text is a triumph. It's the product of a lengthy period of consultation and workshops with local Valleys communities and this investment of development time has really paid dividends.
Harris's text drops in on various villagers in an episodic style which layers up this community, creating a vivid sense of its cohesion as well as the darker issues which lurk just under the surface.
The presence of the pit - or rather its absence - is a tangible seam running through the play. Its legacy is everywhere: in the very dust that Con (Boyd Clack), the manager of the local Miners' Institute, muses on, seeing it as something really rather beautiful as it dances on the breeze in the light of his torch. Meanwhile Huw Rhys' menacing Stan Shandy lies motionless and oxygen-dependent; the same dust clogging up his lungs and submitting him to a slow, painful and undignified death.
And of course that heavy legacy of pit closures and miners' strikes keeps this community rooted in the past. So when surveyor Kyle returns to the village of his childhood after several years living away in London, its not long before we learn that he returns armed with an agenda that threatens to destroy the Institute.
Harris rolls the good times alongside the bad, lending this real colour and texture. Con, the poet and philosopher, is one minute contemplating his own mortality in metaphors that have him speak on behalf of his beloved 'Stute - "my hinges are rusty and my roof is missing a few slates". The next minute, he complains of more mundane troubles - the ladies' loos are forever blocked, and he is rarely seen without his plunger. And when his ever-dodgy microphone slows the evening's proceedings down, he has to run the raffle, the cabaret singer and the 'Caerphilly Charity Challenge for the Children of Chernobyl' simultaneously.
This is a rock-solid cast who do justice to Harris' text, supported by creative direction from John McGrath and together this ensemble ensure that characters are never permitted to descend into caricature.
In the end what is clear is that the village has a pulse of its own, which runs audibly through the play. At times it feels like this might be a sound-memory of the pit. At others that this is the rhythmic heart of the community. But in the final analysis, it is the 'Stute itself, built by every miner in the village, which is its heart and soul.
This is a triumphant piece of work: hugely entertaining, masterfully written, and with pitch-perfect direction from John McGrath and an astounding cast. A great night out, not to be missed.
Runs at Blaengarw Workmen's Hall, Bridgend, Pontardawe Arts Centre, Bedwas Workmen's Hall and the Coliseum Theatre, Aberdare throughout March.
Reviewer: Allison Vale