Friday, March 20, 2015

'Hiraeth' at the Soho Theatre, 19th March 2015

Before moving to the big city I grew up in a farmhouse in Wales. This makes Hiraeth, about a girl who grew up on a farmhouse in Wales before moving to the big city, very easy to empathise with. The show tells the life-so-far of writer and star Buddug James Jones and though the wrinkles of our stories differ, she unearths a barrow-load of half-forgotten nostalgia. This easy familiarity is hardly rare; like a powerful magnet London winkles out the adventurous and creative from small towns all over Britain, the city ever-bulging with those for whom small town life is bondage.

With James Jones playing herself, Max Mackintosh takes up the role of the entire supporting cast. Displaying remarkably chameleonic talents he cycles between a paranoid Welsh farmer's family, the wise Mamgi, immature teenagers, cocky Portuguese lotharios and, eventually, a fictionalised version of himself. He's quick to remind us that he's a trained actor and, as promised, functions as the bedrock of the show - a secure foothold for James Jones to work with.

Beginning in the small town of Newcastle Emlyn, we're given a quick overview of the who, what and why of Buddug. She's the greenest branch on a sturdy family tree composed entirely of farmers.She explains how each of her forebears were notable, one of whom is remembered solely for once growing a cucumber in the shape of Abraham Lincoln. The scope expands to the present, dragging us to a cosily provincial Welsh farmer's social, where cider and black is downed and sprayed and politely limited mayhem ensues.

When Buddug's boyfriend tips over a portaloo with a poor woman inside, coupled with her meeting a globetrotting musician, something awakes inside her. She announces her intentions to "go to London", a prospect greeted with confusion and fear by the provincial locals (and some of the provincial wildlife). Soon she's off down the M4, her parents escorting her to university in London. Here she desperately searches for genuine human contact amidst the surging, unfriendly crowds.

There's a lot to admire here, most of it arising from the loveable, charismatic lead. Constantly assuring us that she's not an actor "but I'll do my best" she makes what could easily be indulgent subject matter into something that's equally interesting, funny and surprisingly meaningful. A decent wodge of the play is spent hammering home the maxim that there's two types of people in the world, rocks (dependable, secure sorts) and rivers (who move 'like electricity' and flow free). Despite lip service being paid to the need for the 'rocks', Hiraeth's sympathies lie firmly with the 'rivers' of this world. It's her 'river' nature that separates Buddug from her family and Welsh friends, a bravery and ability to adapt to shifting circumstances that leads her inexorably towards the gleaming spires of London.

It's also nice to see Welshness and the language on the London stage. Unsurprisingly you don't tend to hear Welsh too often in London, so there's a simply homely novelty of watching people speaking and singing it in the heart of Soho. I don't want to give the impression that this show is exclusively 'for' Welsh speakers (it's all instantly translated), or even primarily aimed at Welsh people, but the sound of the language is like pulling a much loved old jumper on and being hit with a whiff of intense nostalgia for something you didn't even realise you missed.

Buddug James Jones
This fed into my favourite bit, a song entitled 'Cool Cymru' where Welsh nationalists attempt to convince Buddug to remain in country by extolling its virtues. Buddug, in full Welsh national costume, delivers a vaguely threatening argument for isolationalism. Given that I associate this outfit primarily with schoolgirls on St David's Day it's odd to see someone looking so intimidating in it.

Enjoyable and personable as all this is, there are a couple of things that don't really work. A repeated gag of the lighting tech yelling at the cast to "get on with the show!" falls flat. Increasingly these fourth-wall busting techniques work as a shield against criticism. After all, if the cast and crew aren't taking things seriously why should we? It's a reflexive, modern snarkiness that very slightly tarnishes the sincerity that's fuelling the  show.

Slightly more befuddling is the repeated mild-mannered (in-character) racism against gypsies. I didn't know what on earth to make of this and judging by the confused silence, neither did the audience. I certainly don't think anyone in Hiraeth is racist against gypsies, so I guess this is some West Wales reference that befuddles when you get east of Carmarthen. Whatever it is it didn't work.

Minor quibbles aside, Hiraeth is attractively warm and, most importantly, funny. Buddug James Jones understands that inside everyone's head they consider themselves the star of their own movie. With that in mind she's taken the clay of her life and baked it into a fine piece of theatre. While the beats of her life might feel familiar to many (and to me in particular), her individual story has never been told before, and it, while not mind-blowing, is a more than pleasant way to spend an hour.


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