Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wed 9 Sept
words ALEX WREN
Motherlode’s inaugural production at Chapter Arts is an exquisitely constructed piece of theatre that explores the meaning and value of community. Based on the true story of the village of Troedrhiwgwair, where in 1973 the local council attempted to evict the residents from their homes on safety grounds following the disaster at Aberfan in 1966, the story is cleverly constructed around the fight of one family with the local council and the effects of that struggle on their home life.
We are introduced to the family and the other villagers in an energetic opening section that provides us with a window onto a very Welsh world: the five members of the ensemble cast do a brilliant job in bringing to life a community that, in less intelligent and sympathetic hands, could easily descend into crude stereotyping.
That the scenes of Valleys life don’t descend into the banalities of soap opera is a testament to the skills of the performers and the excellent direction of Rachael Boulton, who also plays the matriarch of the family. Max Mackintosh as the son James provides a sound manliness to what is predominantly a woman’s world, with excellent support from Kate Elis as his girlfriend Trish and Gwenllian Higginson as the ‘neighbour-who-is-more-like-family’ Gwen.
Amongst this first-rate ensemble the standout performer is Emma Vickery as the little girl Jackie, the heart and soul of the story who acts as a narrator figure throughout. Vickery’s performance is never less then astonishing: physically contorting her face and body to take on the character of a young child, then slipping out of character when the actors are not in a scene, as the performers stay on the set throughout.
The physical relationship of the actors to the simple yet highly evocative setting is a thing of beauty to watch, their movement across the space striking in its detail and precision. The set itself by Buddug James Jones is a minimalist triumph, steel tubes dominating the skyline as the single row of village houses is represented by three wooden tables and five chairs. The actors imaginatively use this set to create a series of vignettes that stay with you long after the show: a walk through a forest to a stream; a stormy meeting with the council; a little girl crying in her bedroom. Lit by Katy Morrison with washes that are reflective of the natural world, the production design complements the fluidity of the staging.
Finally, though, what holds this production in the memory is the use of sound and song. Created entirely by the performers on stage, Mackintosh’s musical direction is inspired by traditional Welsh folk music but creates something unique – sung by a cast of Welsh and non-Welsh speakers, the music carries within it the cultural memory of a nation. And in the end, what starts as a song of protest becomes a funeral lament for a lost world.