words: AMELIA FORSBROOK
There’s something very liberating about buses. When you want to stop, all you need to do is press the little square button and you’ll generally be out within the next few seconds. Trains, on the other hand, are very different. Committed to a track and a designated number of stations, they leave you with no real choice but to go on with what you have started. In this way, they are very much like the latest play from Ian Rowlands.
Desire Lines stops at each rite of passage with the predictability of the 1100 to Bristol Temple Meads. Adhering to a strict timetable, our protagonist meets, impregnates, leaves and regrets his love in the same expected sequence as our train pulls into Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction, Patchway and Filton Abbey Wood. Unwilling to break from the tracks of narrative formula, the script leaves little opportunity to cover new ground.
But, perhaps even more frustrating than the sense of entrapment is the feeling of unfulfilled promise. At the core of this tale is the alluring concept that memory transcends age. As the cast around him fluctuate between young and old, geeky and street, accomplished and regretful, Ifan Huw Dafydd’s protagonist relives his life through the journeys he has made. When the actions of the young Adam manifest themselves through the reflective older man’s body, the play hints at the liberty of memory. Familiar identities rise out of the bland stereotypes that make up Adam’s fellow passengers, forcing the central character to dive into fantastical re-imaginings of his relationships where he is not solely confined by the route he has chosen to take.
Unfortunately, the power of this pith is clouded by the weak script. Struggling to balance weighty issues with a forced rawness, Desire Lines seems caught between moods, making it hard to determine whether it strengthens or undermines clichéd representation. There are moments of potential. Indeed, the tension between bantered small talk and private monologue welcomes us to look beyond the woman in the bus driver’s uniform or the man in the business suit and jacket. If one is in the habit of salvaging meaning to give a play complete acclaim, one might say the narrative weaves around stereotype and reality to extract meaning beyond first impression. Otherwise, as one cast member makes his transition from ‘obnoxious hoodie’ (humming Dizzy Rascal in a representation of what your dad would think was cool) to ‘geek’ (thick-rimmed black glasses and a book about Julius Caesar) you’ll see characters with the complexity of a WeeMee.
Though, what really grates are the superficial allusions to high-brow culture. If the street kid was a representation of what your dad thinks is ‘cool’, then the pretentious references miss the mark in a far more embarrassing way. The littered references to Shakespeare’s plays come across more like a contrived round of ‘Spot the Bard’ in a pub quiz than shrouded intellectual observation. Similarly, mentions of Adam and Eve hit you so full on the nose it’s tempting to wonder whether Rowlands was the real reason Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
But, like all familiar journeys along predictable tracks, it’s often the people around you that make it. With a gallant diligence, Sherman Cymru’s flexible cast of five bring a certain subtlety to the cliché-ridden script. While the script crudely embeds threadbare political discussions into the narrative with the subtlety of chewing gum used to fill a hole in a wall, the tight coordination of this piece belies a painstaking attention to detail. While Alys Thomas’s Younger Woman speaks, the Man and Older Woman look out of their imagined windows and make subtly coordinated head-movements, as if absorbed by similar passing points of interest. It is not, then, the monologues that stand out but the minute movements of the silent cast.
The impact of the soundless continues for the majority of Desire Lines as Sue Roderick’s Older Woman makes her eerie presence on stage. Wordless save for some beautifully-rendered Welsh lullabies and with a faint, knowing smile on immaculately painted lips, she is an image of glamour. Intriguing, subtle, mature and graceful, she even navigated an awkward stripping scene with a surprising degree of class. Enriching the meaning of the play with an intensity unmatched by any line of the script, Roderick’s singing articulated the perceived difference between the romanticised rural Wales and the anglicised, political city. Unfortunately, the script has to over-labour this distinction in a way that only fuels self-fulfilling political stereotypes.
In a play that is supposedly all about choice, it is upsetting to see Sherman Cymru miss the mark in their selection of play. Confined by the tracks of a weak narrative, the company have done well to provide visual subtleties that are provocative, artistic, elusive and complex. Unfortunately, this has left a void between production and script and we don’t even need to be told to mind the gap.