I don’t know if you believe in funny little signs from the gods. Weird coincidences that all seem to add up to point towards some predetermined fate. The best narratives usually work this way. Real life, however, rarely does.
That’s why the history of theatre company Critical Ambition sometimes reads more like a plot synopsis than a true story.
Dan Jones and Tom Myles, a pair of ambitious lads from Swansea with a love of theatre, met at the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre Company, and from that point onwards seemed to continually cross each other’s paths. Dan recalls being unimpressed at their first encounter, when the younger Tom burst into a room full of raucous youth theatre recruitees and lampooned their cheering. However the two soon bonded, and continued to work together at Gorseinon College and later Exeter University.
They also share the same birthday.
“Beware the Ides of March!” cries the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; one of the early productions Dan and Tom were involved themselves with at Exeter. After separate miserable first nights of freshers that lived up to neither of their expectations of university life, the two decided to meet up and commiserate over a pint. It was then that the flickerings of their co-conspiracy began.
In 2014 the pair decided to form a theatre company dedicated to engaging with and inspiring the youth of Swansea through high-quality productions, and sharing that work further afield. They began with The Man by James Graham, a one-man tragicomedy about a tax return, directed by Dan and starring Tom. In keeping with their mission statement, the show travelled all over South Wales.
Their current project, BLINK by Phil Porter is a co-production with Swansea’s Volcano Theatre and Cardiff’s The Other Room, once again promoting theatre from Swansea by touring it elsewhere.
The words “Ambition is Critical” are inscribed in bold red letters in the paving stones outside Swansea’s main railway station. The phrase is one of a few surviving scraps of a long-forgotten street poetry project. The defiant wording is somewhat muddied by context, carrying echoes of another apocryphal Dylan quote which gave the city the appellation “the graveyard of ambition”. Reclaiming the quote as their own, Tom and Dan set out to show just how ambitious and driven their hometown’s youth can be, firmly establishing a vital creative presence; a visibility.
It is after a gruelling yet rewarding R&D in Volcano Theatre, when BLINK is all keyed up ready to begin rehearsals, that I enter the narrative.
I was volunteering as an usher at The Other Room, having recently graduated from the University of Warwick – an institution whose alumni, coincidentally, happen to be involved in at least four of this season’s six productions at the venue. Fresh-faced and looking to gain some advice and directing experience in the capital, I was lucky enough to be offered an assistant director position on the company’s next production.
A play about visibility and invisibility, the choice of BLINK by Phil Porter as their next offering seemed natural for a this company. A neurotic comedy with an unconventional love story, Sophie (Gwenllian Higginson) and Jonah (Tom Myles) are preoccupied with modes of watching and seeing; being truly seen and therefore truly loved, truly seeing and truly loving. Our first venue, The Other Room, is a pub theatre based in a Cardiff bar named, of all things, Porter’s.
Jonah compares dissecting an eyeball to taking apart a single lens reflex camera. The chosen rehearsal venue? An empty photography studio in Bridgend College. A guide to determining a DSLR’s aperture hangs on the wall behind Tom as he acts out Jonah’s speech detailing the similarity between the eye’s inner workings and a camera’s focus.
However it’s not until the first rehearsal when we all sit down to read the play out loud together, when Phil Porter’s beautifully crafted words and his offbeat anecdotal style begin to lift off the page, that Dan reveals he’s discovered the most remarkable coincidence of all. Gwenllian Higginson who plays Sophie also shares a birthday with himself and Tom. “Oh?” I ask, “what’s the date?” The 15th of March, comes the reply.
And of course, of course, because truth is stranger than fiction, this also happens to be my birthday too.
Perhaps it’s a sign from a mystical power, or the ghost of Shakespeare’s soothsayer, silently blessing our venture from beyond the grave. Or more likely, it’s just a hell of a coincidence.
Despite knowing that, it still doesn’t stop feeling like a tiny nudge from the divine…
Blink by Phil Porter runs at The Other Room in Cardiff 7-19 November and then at Volcano Theatre in Swansea 23 November – 3 December. For tickets and further information visit www.otherroomtheatre.com / www.volcanotheatre.co.uk