Jamie Rees assesses the present, looks to the future and ponders this strange, sometimes rocky, yet ultimately still promising period for theatre, and theatres, in Wales in 2022.
What a strange year 2021 was for us all. In the theatre world, it felt, at times, like a tragedy and a farce all rolled into one. Just when you thought the curtain could go up, back down it came. But it did go back up eventually, and has stayed up – and we can look ahead to 2022 in theatres in Wales with a little more optimism.
As I look around the country for theatre to fill my diary in 2022 it’s clear that things are not back to normal, yet. In some cases, even in cosmopolitan Cardiff, it has been a struggle to find live theatre at some venues, certainly new work, but there are still some gems out there that I’m excited to tell you about.
One venue that already has a wealth of live theatre on sale to enjoy in 2022 is Wales Millennium Centre. With no fewer than 14 musicals at the venue next year, this is certainly a mecca for the artform in 2022. As well as The Lion King in the summer and Les Miserables at Christmas, the venue will also welcome Waitress to Wales for the first time. The show is based on the 2007 film of the same name and tells the story of Jenna Hunterson, a baker and waitress in an abusive relationship who finds that with the support of her workmates, Becky and Dawn, she can overcome the challenges she faces through friendship. After Jenna unexpectedly becomes pregnant, she begins an affair with her doctor, and while looking for ways out of her difficulties, sees a pie-baking contest and its grand prize as her chance.
An unlikely story for a musical, you might think, but certainly, one which has captured the imagination of critics and audiences alike with sell-out shows in New York and London and multiple award nominations including Best Musical at The Tony Awards and The Oliviers. Wales’ very own Lucie Jones was cast in the lead role originally, but has pulled out to play Elphaba in Wicked in the West End instead, confessing “Wicked was the only thing I could leave Waitress for”. She will be replaced by Chelsea Halfpenny (9 To 5, Casualty, Emmerdale). Waitress runs at Wales Millennium Centre from Mon 30 May to Sat 4 June.
I was determined not to make this a musical theatre-fest, but with another 14 musicals at the New Theatre in Cardiff next year also (including Chicago, Hairspray and the brilliant Beautiful – The Carole King Musical), making that two meccas in the Welsh capital for the artform, it’s a hard thing to ignore. Even more so when it’s a musical about Cher. Yes, from Tue 23 to Sat 27 Aug The Cher Show, directed by no other than Dame Arlene Phillips, will arrive in Cardiff in what the producers are calling “a dazzling glitter fest of flamboyant glory.” The mind boggles!
Celebrating six decades of music from The Sonny Side Of Cher to Dancing Queen via Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves and Believe, it’s all in here, and how they’ll keep this show to under three hours is beyond me. One thing is for sure: it’ll turn back time on this diva’s career like no other compilation musical. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Unlike other similar shows, this won’t be a fictional story: it’ll tell the star’s full incredible journey, written by Tony award-winning Rick Elice (Jersey Boys), choreographed by double Strictly winner Oti Mabuse and with costumes by Gabriella Slade (the Spiceworld tour, Six).
If musicals are not your thing, then maybe a famous, feel-good comedy by Willy Russell will take your fancy? As I mentioned above, there is very little out there in terms of Welsh-made theatre next year. One which leaps out, however, is Shirley Valentine from Neath-based Theatr na nÓg. Produced as part of Y Consortiwm Cymraeg, an exciting new collaboration between Theatr na nÓg, Awen Cultural Trust, Merthyr’s Theatr Soar and The Welfare in Ystradgynlais to present high-quality accessible Welsh language theatre, Shirley Valentine will tour the whole of Wales next year.
Starring Shelley Rees (Pobol Y Cwm) in the title role, this hilarious and touching drama follows Shirley as she takes a break from her monotonous lifestyle and goes on an impromptu holiday to Greece with her best friend Jane. There, she begins to enjoy her newfound independence and her life-affirming story becomes one that audiences around the world have fallen in love with. I can’t wait to see it in its Welsh language incarnation, opening at Theatr Soar on Thurs 3 Mar.
Wales’ two national theatre companies, National Theatre Wales and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, are teaming up to tour Wales in spring with a new production of Fabrice Melquiot’s extraordinary play Wanted Petula. This multilingual adaptation is the brainchild of director Mathilde Lopez and her Cardiff-based theatre company August012, and features a script translated by Daf James (Llwyth, Tylwyth), that mixes Welsh, English and even a little French. Both national companies and August012 are putting young people at the heart of the production by recruiting a panel of young advisors to feed into the making process, all in the name of reaching new, younger theatre audiences.
The story is a dark and surreal comedy adventure, following teenager Pwdin Evans who is pushed to breaking point by his ridiculous parents, step-parents and the weight of his teenage worries. He escapes by launching himself into space in search of answers and his missing cousin, Petula. The production will touch on the struggles of blended families, bilingual households, body image and relationships: topics that many young people and adults in Wales will no doubt identify with. Petula will open at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre on Mon 14 Mar before touring the rest of the country.
Another comedy classic from the end of the last century comes to Theatr Clwyd in Mold next year, with The Rise and Fall Of Little Voice by the brilliant Jim Cartwright. Winner of Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Comedy when it ran in the West End with Jane Horrocks in the lead role, this is the story of Little Voice, who has a big, hidden talent. Funny, brutal and heartwarming, this comedy is packed with wonderful tunes as Little Voice sits in her bedroom room with only her deceased father’s record collection for company. She sings along with some of the greatest divas of the 20th century, including our own Shirley Bassey, while her alcohol-abusing mother Mari is on the warpath.
When her latest fella Ray overhears her secret talent, he realises that she may be his ticket to the big time. But Little Voice is awkward and so very shy and will need to conquer more than her stage-fright if she’s going to find her own voice in a very loud world. Playing at Theatr Clwyd from Mon 18 to Sat 23 Apr and starring Shobna Gulati (Coronation Street, Dinner Ladies, Loose Women and, most recently, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at Wales Millennium Centre), British soap royalty Ian Kelsey (Emmerdale, Casualty) and two-time Drama Desk Award Nominee Christina Bianco as Little Voice, this play was named in the top 50 plays of all time, and I strongly recommend it.
The throwbacks keep coming: is this symptomatic, I wonder, of people wanting to reminisce over easier times? I can’t think of anything that would fit that bill better than Friends! The Musical Parody on Sat 5 Mar at The Riverfront in Newport. If Waitress is an unlikely adaptation for a stage musical, then Friends is ripe for the taking, surely? The show follows the pitfalls of work, life, and love amongst that Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey and Rachel in 1990s Manhattan. It could be brilliant, it could be awful, it’s one of those, but one thing I’m sure it will be is nostalgic and hilarious.
Now to venture across the bridge for a brand new piece of theatre from the brilliant Bristol Old Vic: easily one of the UK’s finest producing theatre companies and well worth a trip over the border. Wonder Boy, on the face of it, looks very much of the Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time ilk, and with the strapline “What use is a boy who can’t say his own name?”, promises to be emotional.
It tells the story of 12-year-old Sonny, who is struggling with a heightened stammer, crippling grief, and is trapped in a crumbling school system. Life seems pretty hopeless for the young man until he creates his own comic book superhero to help him navigate his challenges. Words are all that Sonny needs to find his way in the world and when his headteacher casts him in the school production of Hamlet, life’s real heroes emerge in a story exploring the challenges of communication and the power of finding your own way of being heard. Wonder Boy runs at Bristol Old Vic from Sat 5 to Sat 26 Mar.
words JAMIE REES
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