by Sophie Stanton
Emlyn Willams Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru
31 January – 16 February 2008
cast list | reviews
Blodwen – Rachel Lumberg
Jayne – Esther Ruth Elliot
Emily – Bettrys Jones
Directed by Phillip Breen
Designed by Martyn Bainbridge
Sound – Kevin Heyes
Lighting – Gareth Hughes
Fights – Daniel Llewellyn-Williams
We are on familiar territory here. A sophisticated city dweller returns to the small Welsh town she grew up in and opens up a whole can of emotions with a childhood friend and her family.
Indeed we have been here many times before but what makes Sophie Stanton's play so compelling is that the gross, raucous, foul-mouthed comedy of the opening gradually shifts and it becomes a play about female bonding, ending up as a genuinely sweet piece about friendship.
It's a three-hander and without firm direction and strong acting it could easily become tedious and repetitive. There's no danger of that here. Director Phillip Breen uses Martin Bainbridge's compact, cluttered set and its three important off-stage spaces to keep a constant sense of movement. Even when these characters are still they are never at rest. These are lives being lived. Never, in spite of a plethora of food, drink, bags, an urn with ashes and a live cat, did I ever feel I was merely watching stage business.
The three characters grow immensely throughout the play. Sophisticated Jayne arrives drunk, and one of the joys of Esther Ruth Elliot's performance was the comedy she got from her legs and feet during this section, but slowly her fears and neuroses fade as she achieves calmness.
Rachel Lumberg takes Blodwen, mothering skills zero, sluttishness A*, to a similar tranquility from a starting point of wildly odd phrase-making (all her own work as she constantly points out) and swearing sufficient to make a stoker blush.
Between these two is nine year old Emily, street-wise before her time and self-sufficient in domestic survival skills. Bettrys Jones is simply amazing, her body language, movements and vocal cadences are pure nine year old. Some of the play's best moments come when she and Jayne are playing games and bonding, the quiet electricity between the two is magical.
It may not have the historical dimension of Memory or the social complexities of Two Princes but this latest play in Mold's new writing strand is an absorbing, funny, moving and emotional experience which proves that small and domestic can feel just as epic.
Cariad, a first play by actress Sophie Stanton, was a rip-roaring piece of modernity. Set in a scruffy mid-Wales terrace it was a three-hander in which drunk Jayne, her mother’s ashes in tow, blunders into the home of childhood friend Blodwen and nine year old daughter, Emily, a remarkable performance, half-elfin, half-feral by Bettrys Jones.
Mother Blodwen, large in body and gross in sentiment, has a rich and ribald language all of her own. 'How’s your bum for love bites?' is her way of an enquiry as to a boyfriend. Her fornicating sister is 'a big slimy piece of smelly turd'. Resigned over the absence of partner Allaun she says, 'I’ve never been into sex. Too sticky for my liking.' Dewey-eyed towards a childhood friend, permanently punitive towards her daughter, Blodwen is a big blowsy role seized by Rachel Lumberg and played with colossal brio and un underlying poignancy.
Posher Jayne is prone to delivering weighty lines – 'There’s nothing left between me and the sky', 'Maybe’s that’s God', 'Talking is Air' – that slip uneasily into the text. Unattached, with no professional background other than 'London' – here just code for not-Wales – she has a gift of instant bonding with child Emily. But she is under-characterised even though Esther Ruth Elliott does her best with her.
As a play Cariad is more a situation spread across six scenes than a honed drama. Structurally, having a character drunk for the whole of the first scene, means the audience is left waiting a long time to grasp the direction of the play and even at the end of the second scene it is unclear. However, Act Two pulls it together and moves it towards an affecting scene of reconciliation.
Plays by women about women are rare sightings. Top Girls and Dreams of San Francisco were a long time ago. There are things in Cariad that a male playwright would, could not do. Jayne staggers around the room, tights around her knees. 'Oh, my aching pissflaps' and 'Worse than a bloody period' are just two of the lines a male writer would shrink from.
Caryl Churchill’s and Jacqueline Holborough’s plays tackled women and public life. Cariad, for all its opening of fresh dramatic territory, is rootedly about women in the home. But, for a first play it is an achievement of character and language, and Sophie Stanton should feel well pleased.
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