A Good Night Out In The Valleys
Blackwood Miners’ Institute, Blackwood.
Fri 12 Mar
History’s henchmen are always lurking in the background of A Good Night Out In The Valleys. It’s hardly surprising. As the first ever production from National Theatre Wales, the anxiety of influence must be felt more keenly than ever by artistic director John McGrath – but he needn’t have worried. With first-rate acting from Boyd Clack and Siwan Morris, and excellent production values, this populist comedy is a fitting start for the organisation.
A Good Night Out In The Valleys taps into the Welsh oral tradition by basing its narrative around stories that writer Alan Harris and director John McGrath collected from people in the valleys. The plot follows the return of Kyle from London to the mining town that he used to call his home. He’s a mineral prospector, and believes there to be a seam of gold running underneath the local miners’ institute. Inevitably, as he immerses himself in the community, he rediscovers old ties, and finds himself irresistibly drawn to the place he used to call home.
As you might expect from a play that’s steeped in nostalgia, it’s unashamedly sentimental, packing more than a handful of poignant moments that threaten to spill into banality; fortunately, however, this is no romantic portrait of the valleys. Tracy Pike’s diatribe against the monotony of life in a dead-end town draws a huge round of applause from the local audience – a telltale sign of the ambivalence towards life in this community. These complicated feelings of self-loathing are revisited in the characters of Stan Shandy and Kyle; the former an embittered, lifelong miner, and the latter an old resident of the town struggling to shrug off his past. The climax of the play is philosophical MC and institute boss Con’s exhausted declaration that history is “a trap”, but the conclusion suggests that history is vital and worth saving after all. That struggle with the past is the real meat of the play, and it’s all around, from the crumbling walls of the institute to the Woolworths pencils doled out to the audience for a game of bingo.
It’s the little touches like those Woolworths pencils that make it so magical for the audience. Cackles of laughter explode out of neighbouring seats, echoes of characters’ lines spoken in hushed tones ripple through the auditorium and, to my left, a couple heckles back at the actors. It would take a real miser not to recognise how enraptured the local audience is, and not to perceive that this play really is connecting on a level that’s rarely witnessed.
This makes some occasionally cringeworthy slapstick a little easier to bear. I wonder if Harris at times confuses working-class values with popular ones, since it’s difficult not to be put off by the parallels between the comic factory scenes and – yes – Ricky Gervais’s show-within-a-show When The Whistle Blows from Extras.
These are minor points, however. What matters is that this is a portrait of community life that’s vital and meaningful without being condescending. National Theatre Wales have set a fine precedent, and bequeathed an affecting play. This is no past they will need to escape.