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Somewhere in England

Mike James, from an idea by John Biggins
Clwyd Theatr Cymru
Clwyd Theatr Cymru

(Background) - musicians: Phylip Harries, Georgina White, Kit Orton, Greg Palmer, Shirley Darroch, Alex Parry. (Foreground) Arthur Askey (Paul Barnhill) Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Kay Cavendish (Shirley Darroch), Carol Morrison (Georgina White) Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Tommy Handley (Philip Bretherton), Horace Percival (Kraig Thornber), Carol Morrison (Georgina White), Announcer (Paul Barnhill), Dino Galvani (Richard Elfyn), Sydney Keith (Kit Orton) Credit: Catherine Ashmore

This new play, written by Mike James, is set in Bangor North Wales during the Second World War and focuses on the period the BBC spent there.

Due to the obvious threat of bombing in London alongside the need to maintain the nation’s morale with the programmes broadcast, North Wales became the home of programmes such as It’s That Man Again between 1940 and 1943. This period provides rich pickings and Mike James has cleverly blended household name characters with fictional occupants of the Welsh-speaking city to create a superb story.

It’s That Man Again was apparently the most popular variety show in the history of broadcasting with one of the main presenters, Tommy Handley becoming a national institution. Philip Bretherton turns in one of a number of outstanding performances as Handley and delivers the scripts and punchlines as if it was the 1940s.

Judith Croft has done a superb job on creating a set that is a radio studio, family home and saloon bar in turn and sometimes simultaneously, complete with ‘On Air’ signs that also display graphic translations of the Welsh spoken by locals.

The interplay between the locals and BBC performers is one of the joys of the performance with exploitation, adulation and resentment all coming to the fore at times. There are some hilarious moments as translations of what the Welsh characters are actually saying to the blissfully ignorant English is displayed above the stage.

However the central theme, in which Tom Blumberg and Catherine Lamb excel, is the burgeoning love between local Dewi and Sarah, a landgirl from Chester billeted in the area. With war as a backdrop, though, an added urgency emerges through Dewi receiving his call-up papers and romantic complications by his drunken dalliance with Georgina White’s brazenly saucy Carol.

Richard Elfyn and Sara Harris-Davies, fresh from the triumphant Under Milk Wood tour, are again splendidly versatile. Harris-Davies particularly portrays a heartbroken Mam, while Elfyn’s appearances as the inadvertently lewd Reverend Cefni Pugh threaten to steal the show.

The bawdy nature of the first half gives way to slightly more tension after the interval as the realities of war become more obvious. There are still plenty of laughs, but the whole reason these celebrities are in Bangor, the dangers of War, are never too far away.

Maybe one of the most touching moments is when Dewi brings Arthur Askey back to surprise his mam. Clearly in awe of one of the nation’s biggest stars, she nevertheless enjoys a dance with her hero. Paul Barnhill is brilliant in the role of the ebullient and good-natured Askey, demonstrating the attributes that made him so special to many of the wartime generation.

The real joy of this production is the blend of 1940s music and comedy, both brilliantly performed, with an absorbing storyline of fame and everyday folk during the very real drama of war.

Huge credit is due to musical director and pianist Greg Palmer along with Nick Beadle, Matthew Williams and Sam Spencer-Lane for lighting, sound and choreography respectively. Director Peter Rowe has done an outstanding job in pulling together the many aspects of the play to deliver a superb production.

Somewhere in England is heart-warming and brilliantly performed and will bring huge pleasure to many audiences.

Reviewer: Dave Jennings