In a shabby London boarding house at the heart of London’s theatre scene lives a collection of men and women who seem on the cusp of failure and despair. There’s little money about, and even less ambition, but as The Light of Heart develops we see hope and fortune pave a road forward and upward… for some, at least.
The Light of Heart, first staged in 1940, has a cracking good story, sculpted with an intimate understanding of live theatre by the great Welsh playwright and thespian Emlyn Williams. It is particularly gratifying to be able to see the play performed in Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s intimate Emlyn Williams Theatre, where Simon Kenny has constructed a beautifully ramshackle bedsitter set, complete with peeling wallpaper, torn lino and filthy window panes. Although set in the 1930s, this is a world more familiar through the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s and 60s, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or A Taste of Honey.
Maddoc Thomas is a washed-up has-been actor who, in his prime, was a feted, up-and-coming star of the stage, but whose descent into alcoholism cut short his promising career, and for the last eight years he’s been drinking himself silly with equally as drunk and silly friends in various clubs around Soho. This once great thespian is reduced to taking work making announcements over tannoys, or dressing up as Father Christmas at Selfridge’s.
And buzzing around this flawed genius is a snatch of characters who feed off him in some way, whether it be his devoted daughter Cattrin, his on-off bedfellow Fan or his sorrowful drifter friend Barty. The cast of eight are exemplary in their execution of a play that is both uplifting and tragic, and slides from the lowest of ebbs to the crest of elation. Williams crafts quite the emotional journey, both for the characters and the audience, demonstrating just what an artist he was when it came to the live art form.
It would be unfair to give away the plot too much as foreknowledge of the story’s development would skew the natural rhythm of the play. But what we do see is a new opportunity, a fresh start made flesh for down-and-out Welshman Maddoc, and much of the entertainment in the second Act is waiting to see whether Mad’s new dawn comes off or not. You really get invested in these characters, especially Mad and Cattrin, and as events play out you get unavoidably affected by proxy. That is the power of live theatre.
The heart of the play is the central performance from Gwyn Vaughan Jones as Maddoc, who staggers effortlessly from maudlin sot to the picture of an upright and respectful gentleman. The range of emotions he draws upon is impressive, and his expression of character at any one stage of Mad’s journey is done with such a lightness that you genuinely believe Maddoc Thomas to be a real person standing (or staggering) before you. It’s quite an accomplishment, and the role of a lifetime for Gwyn.
And the light at the heart of Gwyn’s Maddoc is Charlotte Gray as his daughter Cattrin, so devoted to her troubled father that she’s quite forgotten to live her own life for herself. It is one example of a number of tragedies in the play, which feels fittingly Shakespearean in its flavour. Cattrin cares for her father like a a mother would a son (indeed, she describes him as a “child with a hint of genius”), while Maddoc treats Cattrin like the wife he lost during childbirth. They fill a gaping hole in one another’s lives, mirroring a moment in the play where policeman Bevan sums up Hamlet in one line: that it’s about a man who’s in love with his father.
There’s Barty, a sozzled oaf with no real role in life except to finish off as many opened bottles of Bass bitter as he can, and who waits in vain for his 93-year-old grandmother to die so he can inherit some cash (which he will undoubtedly fritter away on booze). There’s the optimistic but inevitably deluded Fan, a party girl who enjoys a good time (usually with a different man each night) who craves a solid relationship, perhaps with Maddoc, but who also knows it just wouldn’t work out.
There’s even a tragedy in landlady Mrs Banner, who refers constantly to a mysterious Rosie (assumed to be her daughter but who I thought, at first, was her dog!). Rosie is never seen or heard, by the audience or characters. Is Rosie real? Was she once? And whatever happened? We don’t find out, but it’s a joy to fill in the gap ourselves.
There’s a lovely turn from Victoria John as no-nonsense Scot Mrs Lothian, who sweeps back into Maddoc’s life after years away, complete with success and money and a hand of friendship and hope. Mrs Lothian is the catalyst for progression in the play, and John gets the character perfectly. Her two-hander with Charlotte Gray in Act 2 is a delight to watch.
Robert Atwill makes for an unexpectedly sexy Robert (I say unexpectedly because the character would never describe himself as such, but the actor brings an innate charisma to the role which makes Robert that bit more interesting than he might be), while Joshua McCord gives a sweet and lyrical turn as Welsh bobby Bevan. I’m not altogether sure why Bevan hangs around the boarding house so much (always in uniform, so often on duty), but it could well be his hankering for the green hills of home that he sees in Maddoc that keeps him coming back.
Quick heads-up to Nick Beadle for some sensitive lighting during the handful of brief soliloquies that Maddoc gets: the lights dim to a soft focus spotlight on the great man, as if he is reciting on stage, before the house lights fade back up and reality kicks in again. It’s a lovely touch and really helps focus attention when it’s needed.
I mentioned Kenny’s set earlier, and it is used well by director Lora Davies, especially the stairwell, just out of sight but so prevalent in the mind’s eye, as is the world in the street outside thanks to Kevin Heyes’ sound, which becomes vital in the play’s closing scene.
The Light of Heart is a delightful tragi-comedy performed with real confidence by the cast. But then, when they’re handed such a solid, infallible text from someone like Emlyn Williams, they were always destined for success.
The wheel is come full circle.
Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, April 9 to 25, 2015, as part of the Celtic Festival. Performance reviewed: April 14, 2015.