The Other Room, Cardiff – until 11 November 2018
Kevin Jones jumps straight into the 90s with Cardiff Boy. Forgetting for a moment the pub backdrop created in The Other Room, we’re barely a minute in before 90s tunes are blaring from a tape (yes a tape). Directed with intelligence, and a clear passion from Matthew Holmquist and with writing that balances a particular brand of Cardiff humour with universal themes and important questions, Cardiff Boy is an engaging yet emotional piece of work that is beautifully created and performed.
The set and direction elevate what is already a remarkable piece of writing. Designer April Dalton has expertly crafted a time capsule 90s pub room (though in fact a fair few of these still hang on in Cardiff). From the garish mish-mashed carpet to the velvet covered bar stools, battered low tables and even plastic ashtrays. Stepping in from the bar at Porters – all 00’s cool and Hipsters – feels like being pulled back in time to pubs and Britpop. You can almost smell the time of cigarette smoke and alco-pops.
The design works effectively for the storytelling, with Jack Hammett weaving in and out of tables – at times clambering over audience members. But also able to pause in front of a table and tell his story directly to whoever is in front of him. It’s intimate in a way that is stark even for The Other Room space, and it’s incredibly effective in transporting the audience into that world.
Credit particularly to Ryan Stafford’s lighting design that helps convey the sense of place as it moves from home to pub, to club to house party to cold street. Interwoven with sound design that weaves both ‘Bangin’ 90s tunes’ from the tape deck, through to an ocean and even Caroline Street on a weekend (that is, after all, a particular sound). Holmquist has with his team truly created the world of the play, and it feels like being part of a very particular moment in time.
Holmquist credits the power of music in his programme note, and this is integral to the narrative, and feel of the piece. It’s engrained in Jones’ writing, that movement captured, the feeling of a time and place. Who hasn’t been transported back by the opening bars of a track? And teenage years are, like nothing else, encapsulated by the music we listen to. All those emotions, all those hormones raging and finding the perfect song that echoes it. Whether a 90s kid or not, everyone can recognise that. Of course those lucky enough to have their teenage years in the 90s will grin in recognition, cringe at the memory and no doubt have a few associative memories of their own. More than this though, music drives and weaves its way into the plot. Moments of music are emotional and narrative markers, intersecting with this snapshot of 90s teenage life. And it is the most unexpected of tracks that comes back, and hits with an emotional clout that will probably stay with anyone who sees this play.
Jack Hammett’s performance is one to be commended. An actor who has been with the piece for a long time, there’s a clear sense of knowing the character, and the world of the play. And with it a real care and attention for the work. As much as his performance is effervescent with energy there’s a quiet balance to it, and an attention to detail that really elevates his performance. As subtle as Jones’ writing is as times- not giving too much away in terms of detail- in Hammett’s performance there’s a real sense of the world behind the lines. He channels the energy of a teenager, his mind racing from one thought, one memory to the next. But always fully in control ready to slam on the breaks, and bring the audience into a quieter moment, reflective thought- but immediately bring them along again for the next burst of energy. Within the intimate confines of the space it’s a remarkable thing to witness, and he handles the subtle audience interaction effortlessly, bringing additional power to the performance, pulling everyone in and along with him. Added to this the true vulnerability and openness with which he tells the story, in even a relatively short time, he makes the audience such a part of his world, that following him through to the end is an emotional journey.
But Hammett is given much to play with on that journey. On one level Jones has written a salute to both Cardiff and the 1990s and that is a joy of a ride. Both are painted vividly, the 1990s through music and a peppering of cultural references. And Cardiff looms large as another character in the play. And while it’s practical illegal to set a play in Cardiff and not mention Caroline Street, Jones’ writing is another level of depth. Cardiff feeds the narrative, weaves its way into it alongside the 90s tunes. Anyone familiar with the city will get a kick out of the references, those who remember the Cardiff of the 1990s, or lived and grew up in East Cardiff perhaps more so. From the opening descriptions we’re walked through the Llanederyn Estate, and the imagery is so vivid, so clear you could walk that route based on it. Across the play the level of detail really brings it to life. From a line about the Claude pub, that if you know it will make you howl. Back to bringing the 90s back to life again with ‘return of the fucking Mac.’ Who knew?
The writing is fast and funny, but importantly has such an emotional core. Importantly Jones is writing a Working-Class voice. More importantly it’s one without asking for pity, or indeed a story driven by its Working-Class roots. That’s so important. We need voices like this on stage. Specifically in this case voices that don’t pronounce the ‘Ll’ in ‘Llanederyn properly. But whose entire story isn’t about to be driven by that. The story, the character is shaped by that, as we all are, as he should be. But it’s not the story, and that’s important. It’s important that he mentions, in 90s Cardiff if you didn’t have a car you didn’t get to a proper supermarket. Or that the Estate is not really a community, but everyone knows each other (yes, thank you enough with the romanticised Working Class is always a glorious community narratives!). It’s important he’s from East Cardiff and shows Splott isn’t the only Working Class neighbourhood in Cardiff. And yes, it drives the plot that his parents are ‘pretty poor actually’ because that’s part of who he is, and what drives him. But that’s not all he is.
Jones cleverly doesn’t give us too much information, either at any one time, or indeed overall. We get hints, we hear something of his parents, but not too much. The trust in the audience to fill in the blanks. Again, with School we hear some, enough for it to perhaps be recognisable, but not too much. The friendship group even, some of whom are sketched out almost in the background, but that’s ok, we just need a sense of the world as we navigate thought it. All of if cleverly blends in this stream of consciousness, non-linear glimpse into adolescence and all its complications. It’s a story that touches on many important issues- yes class but also toxic masculinity, sexuality (hell it’s a teenage story sex in general), friendship and grief. It’s powerful work of the kind that sneaks up on you with its honesty.
I may start adding these to reviews with a particular emotional resonance. Don’t read below here if you haven’t seen the play and fear spoilers.
Cardiff Boy was one of the most emotional experience I’ve had in the theatre in a long while. Just ask my poor companion whose jumper I sobbed into at the end.
Of course there’s always something special about a play that connects so strongly with where you’re from in more ways than one. I’m a teenager of the 1990s. I’m firmly of the opinion that music and frankly the world peaked around 1995. I did those teenage years in East Cardiff, the rough bit, a stone’s throw from Llanederyn estate that Kevin Jones eloquently describes (In Rumney, if anyone’s curious). I went to a school much like the one described. My boy mates were much like the group described. I knew these people. The writing, and yes the music feels like home. But as the slightly tangential, slightly ranty portion of the review above suggests, those voices are important. I don’t want working class tales that tell me how grim it is. It was sometimes, I mean its no fun being the only one with a Peacocks jacket not a branded sport one. And being from there, yes it’s part of my identity, all our identities, but it’s not all of us. And we can and should have characters on stage for whom that is true too; they are shaped by it and not defined by it, that every story isn’t about it. And yes, remembering when writing about Cardiff that Splott isn’t the only working-class area is also great.
That’s tangential, and a little ranty. And partly why Cardiff Boy made me so emotional. It’s that connection, with a time, with a place. And the music, as above, there’s something about the music of your teenage years that engrains itself to your soul. So while those songs weren’t all the ones that I was connected to, they’re familiar, so familiar and a sound of a time and place and that’s powerful.
But that’s not the only reason why (again spoilers avert your eyes, etc.) At the end, when we hear of the friend’s death. And we hear of the group of teenagers, and adults mourning him. There’s a certain kind of connection there that, if you know you know.
When I was in 6th form, I remember my R.S teacher telling us, that the first person of our own age who died would be the hardest. That we expect people older than us to die, it’s the natural order of things. But that you never expect someone your own age to die. And the younger it happens, the harder it is. There were only 6 of us in that R.S class. By the end of our first year of university, we were planting a tree in the school grounds for one of us who had died. A freak accident. Nobody could have predicted. And she was right.
There’s a particular kind of language, or a lack of language for capturing that moment. For what you go through as a group. It’s almost inextricable certainly unexplainable but something in that final scene utterly perfectly and painfully expresses that. That moment where the boys use music- and yes Return of the Fucking Mack- to remember their friend, because its those flashes of memory that’ll stay with you. For longer than they perhaps realise in that moment.
It was a thing I didn’t know I’d been searching to figure out how to feel, for many years now. So, thank you to Kevin Jones for that.
And to my friend from so long ago, it’s a weird thing but I think of you when I eat pears. And I sometimes see you waving to me across the road from Roath Park lake.
Cardiff Boy by Kevin Jones
Presented by Red Oak Theatre
Running From: 30 October – 11 November 2018
Performed at The Other Room, Cardiff
Director: Matthew Holmquist
Cast: Jack Hammett
Designer: April Dalton
Lighting Designer: Ryan Stafford
Stage Manager: Joshua Bowles
Sound Designer: Joshua Bowles
Producer: Ceriann Williams
Assistant Director: Nerida Bradley
Assistant Designer: Lauren Dix