The Other Room, Porter’s Bar, Cardiff, Thurs 30 Apr
Halfway through Alun Saunders’ play A Good Clean Heart, Hefin and Jay engage in a riotous Karaoke sing-a-thon. A grotty council flat in London reverberates to the sounds of their Singstar competition as the two brothers, forced apart as kids through adoption, begin to reconnect with each other. It is a fitting scene for a play that explores the bonds between brothers separated by language, culture and race but brought together by the simple fact of sharing the same mother.
Hefin, an 18 year-old Welsh speaker, lives with his adopted parents in Wales, unaware of older brother Jay, a tagged offender on home detention curfew, living in London with their birth mother. A letter from Jay sparks Hefin into questioning his upbringing and identity, realised most eloquently in a powerful scene where – spewing rage at his sudden realisation that his Welshness is not necessarily a birthright but a coincidence of adoption – he refuses to speak Welsh in class. Thus begins Hefin’s journey to seek out his brother, leading to a series of scenes that are both heartfelt and funny, including Hefin’s puzzlement that his ‘brother’ is black and a droll Facebook conversation.
Saunders writes some witty dialogue, with a direct address to the audience (in either Welsh by Hefin, accompanied by translated surtitles projected onto the set, or Jay’s English). The cross over of language also leads to some amusing moments, as when Jay mishears the Welsh word for ‘message’ (neges) as a racial slur and Hefin tries to explain to Jay how his name is the Welsh version of Kevin. I also discovered a whole range of swear words in Welsh and the fact that there is no direct translation for shotgun, thanks to the surtitles. The director Mared Swain teases out the complexity of their relationship with meticulous detail, Hefin’s trip to London to meet Jay accompanied by the actors brilliantly playing a host of other characters along the way. The technical complexity of matching the surtitles to the dialogue is impressive, but it is the performances by James Ifan as Hefin and Dorian Simpson as Jay that really grab your attention, both actors excellent in building an onstage rapport that harks back to a dimly remembered childhood. Ifan technical skill as an actor brings out Hefin’s confusion and rage along with his cluelessness at being a boy from the valleys lost in the big city. Simpson as the big brother exudes a world-weary knowledge, his gritty urban exterior toughened by his run-ins with gangs, his mother’s questionable taste in men and time spent in prison.
Erin Maddock’s set design is a children’s playground, scrawled with graffiti but filled with a fluid theatricality as the set converts into multiple locations, moving through time and space with the aid of projected video backdrops and intricate sound design. At various times we are transported to a classroom in Wales, a council flat in London, a bus, a car and even inside the workings of social media, helped by the actors who leap, sit, run, stand and jump across the set and help transform it into a playground of the imagination.
Whilst the ending of the play may seem a little predictable, the power of the drama lies in its integrity and honesty about the emotional context of adoption and its impact on both the family that gives up the child and the adoptee family as well. Thankfully the play’s tone never seeks to educate or preach to the audience about the issues of adoption but rather focuses on the characters and their predicament, which leads to an exhilarating evening in the theatre thanks to terrific performances by Ifan and Simpson and the technical virtuosity of the production company.
words ALEX WREN photos PALLASCA PHOTOGRAPHY
A Good Clean Heart, The Other Room, Porter’s Bar, Cardiff, until Sat 16 May. Tickets: £12.50/£5-£10.50 conc. Info: www.otherroomtheatre.com