After reading so many gushingly good reviews about the plays being staged at The Other Room at Porter’s in Cardiff, the city’s pub theatre, I finally took the plunge and what a face smackingly amazing evening it was.
The bar itself is a bit of an intentionally Bohemian, shabby chic sort of place which is totally unexpected from the outside. In fact, you would be hard pressed to even know it is there. As a first timer I was a bit confused working out how it all actually works as the bijoux (small) theatre is behind a door covered by a big red drape. As the doors open a chap makes an announcement and in you file showing your eticket and finding a seat.
The play is one of those where the players (two jaw droppingly fine young actors) are on “the stage” and chatting as two kids would in a playground, looking at their mobile phones, rubbish strewn behind railings, graffiti and a cute little bird projected on the wall. I mention that for no other reason than it was cute.
Dorian Simpson and James Ifan could be any two brothers playing together on Erin Maddock’s playground set and director Mared Swain makes everything very normal, very ordinary as Jay and Hefin hang out together. But of course you notice one is white and one is black. Don’t worry – this is integral to the story and their parentage is relevant! They can’t be brothers can they? Must be mates?
Alun Saunders cleverly constructed and sharply written play A Good Clean Heart being take the tale of two brothers separated by adoption at a very early age as its focus but from there somehow manages to give a darned good look at identity, nationalism, race, social deprivation, class, growing up, insecurity, guilt, parenting, sacrifice…well that’s enough for now….in just over an hour. Phew. And he does it really, really well.
That’s not to mention the Welsh language, its use, perception, attitude to teaching it in schools, attitude of the English to it and so forth.
Dorian Simpson and James Ifan
When the boys start talking and deftly move apart to their own worlds, one Welsh-speaking Carmarthenshire and the other a London council flat, the audience (but not the boys) sees their lives could not be more different. They share the same mother but one a white and the other a black father. But the colour of the skin is just the most obvious difference.
Hefin (who had been called Kevin by his birth mother and is known as such by elder brother Jay) has a hangover after his 18th birthday in traditional style and is in no state for his rugby trial. Putting extra heat under clearly an already simmering teenage pressure cooker the parents reveal that they have been keeping letters secret from the half-brother who Hefin does not remember. The final straw is a prissy, fussy Welsh language teacher’s nagging and Hefin erupts and decides to track down his half-brother.
Fresh out of jail, 25-year-old Jaysen makes his way home to the council flat where his home to the council flat he shares with his mum, dependent on drugs and drink and the adulation of a godawful boyfriend survives in a world of self-delusion and escapism.
After an amusingly handled awkward first meeting (“why are you black?”), the fraternal bond is quickly established. Without initially intending to, Jaysen brings Hefin home to meet his—their—mother. Things don’t go entirely well. It turns out Jaysen does remember the baby boy he looked after until social services too him away and has been trying to track him down on social media as well as sending the letters that Hefin has never received, including his email address.
The heart of the story is Hefin coming to London, meeting Jay, the shock that he has a black brother, then all sorts of fun as the country boy in town travels across London and meets his birth mother, the boyfriend and all hell kicks off.
To tell this tale of different characters the two actors adopt different roles and alternate as their birth mother Reanne with fabulous effect. The moment the two boys both “become” their mother at the same moment is a master stroke that chills to the bone. They are their mother’s sons.
The ending is unexpected in the context of how awful we think Reanne has been as a mother and the seemingly self-obsessed selfish person she has become. But like the colour of the children’s skin, this is just what we see on the outside. I won’t spoil the ending which had me in tears and will probably have the same effect on anyone else whose siblings were also split up at an early age.
I am sure Alun Saunders is right and many parents either give up children for adoption, walk away altogether, fight or don’t fight for custody, out of what is in the best interests of their children. Sadly, I know many do not and perhaps this is why the rather idyllic ending is so sad as it is probably what every child separated from one or other or both parents hopes is the reality.
The play could have been writing only in English or in Welsh and the characters could have been, say, from a village in Caernarfonshire and a council estate in Cardiff – or two different parts of London. I suppose you could say the play is a non-singing Blood Brothers in that regard. However, the divisions contrast and values that are inherent in the bilingualism of Wales, the barriers and misunderstandings that exist (and not only from outside Wales) and the cultural shorthand our language creates adds a richness to the story.
How is it done then? We have spoken dialogue which has surtitles either in English or in Welsh and also a nifty use of social media text projected on to the walls of Zakk Hein’s video backdrop. This also enables us to be conveyed to Victoria the bus station, their bus journey, edgy London streets, the shabby council flat. Oddly we don’t really have any contrasts images of Hefin’s Wales.
The play is also genuinely hilarious at times and some of the acting is a hoot, especially Jay’s Landan gestures and moves. No wonder Hefin is transfixed once he gets over the shock of having a black bro.
When this play gets revived grab a ticket and be transported to where theatre should be, physically, emotionally and dramatically.