This is the Wales that Dylan Thomas never showed usCharles Spencer of the Telegraph reviews Cardiff East at the National Theatre. 15 February 1997
THIS sprawling, ambitious and sometimes moving play comes across like an angry riposte to the florid Welsh wind-baggery of Dylan Thomas.
In Under Milk Wood Thomas followed the inhabitants of his ludicrously picturesque village of Llareggub through 24 hours, all bawdiness and beer and lushly poetic prose.
In Cardiff East Peter Gill, better known as a director than as a playwright, returns to the city of his birth to present a similarly kaleidoscopic impression of life there today. Like Thomas, Gill follows a group of disparate characters through 24 hours, and, like Under Milk Wood, Cardiff East seems like a radio play. The staging is plain, with minimal designs, and the cast sit on hard wooden chairs, like patients in a doctor's waiting room, when they are not involved in a scene.
The tone could hardly be more different from Thomas's overripe romanticism, however. For Gill, life is gritty and life is bleak. His is a world of unemployment, festering grief, domestic violence and loss of faith. If that makes the play sound like a grim experience well, yes, it's grim. But Gill has a real sympathy for his characters, and a gift for capturing the small change and quirky dialogue of everyday lives.
There are 14 adult characters, ranging from adolescent to elderly, and they all seem to be related by blood or friendship. But the people in this working-class community where work is in short supply are sharply depicted, and we come to know a good deal about them.
Gripping drama is also in short supply, however, and there are long stretches when the show seems like an enormously long pilot for a not particularly riveting television soap. Cardiff East isn't as funny as Coronation Street or as sensational as EastEnders, and the writing often drifts aimlessly.
Nor is the play as provocative as its publicity suggests. "Why don't the Welsh reach for the Armalite?" the blurb inquires, but the play doesn't even attempt to answer what is in any case a factitious question. Gill's characters seem to exist in a world that has given up on political hope of any kind. They find balm for their aimless lives in bingo, booze, betting, karaoke, drugs and — more positively — friendship and a sense of community.
The play explores the characters in fragmentary, juxtaposed scenes. A couple of lads get off with each other in bed; a desperate mum and her alcoholic husband quarrel violently, and finally murderously; a woman who lost her son and been abandoned by her husband expresses her corrosive sense of grief. Perhaps most moving is Kenneth Cranham, with his painful, angry account of his character's loss of religious faith after 15 years in a Catholic order.
Though the performances are excellent in Gill's own lovingly detailed Cottesloe production, it is hard to escape the feeling that Cardiff East adds up to less than the sum of its many parts. There's a tiresome unresolved mystery about the boy who died in tragic circumstances, a sense that the violent ending occurs because Gill was desperate for a dramatic climax. What's missing is the narrative drive which would make the evening a fully satisfying theatrical experience rather than an interesting, well-intentioned failure.
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