For his last piece of programming at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Terry Hands has turned to the work of the grand old Welsh writer and actor, Emlyn Williams. Williams not only kindly consented to Clwyd naming their studio theatre after him 30 years ago, he even came to the Christening, probably aware he was already dying of cancer. It was a fitting and memorable day…and this is an equally appropriate farewell in his eponymous space.
Not only had I never seen “The Light of Heart”, I didn’t even know it had been written. But it transpired to be a charming and curious play. It’s quite a cosy, nest-like affair – resembling a polite 1930s version of Coronation Street in which characters ‘pop round’ a great deal and are all terribly nice to each other; though, in keeping with a ‘well-made’ Williams play, there is a rather more serious subtext. It’s a play from the era before Osborne. There is a kitchen sink, but it’s used to keep a bowler hat in.
Elements of Emlyn’s own life are wrapped up in the story. The central character Maddoc is an aging Welsh actor – still living in crumbling theatrical digs – who believes his best days are over. He’s become dependent on someone much younger (and the bottle) to see him through, and a spell as Selfridges Father Christmas to pay the rent. Sadly he’s too generous with the presents and his whiskey fumes – and is at his lowest when he’s suddenly called upon by John Gielgud to play Lear in the West End. The big question is ‘can he hack it’? His eagerness and self doubt march into battle against each other. Sobriety is fickle.
I don’t know if old Terry had a hand in the casting before passsing the production over to the younger Lora Davies…but either way the line up is lovely.
Gwyn Vaughan Jones is a calm, collected actor, very much at home in old school theatre. He is boyish under his white hair and beguiles us into wanting Maddoc to win through. The part might have been made for him … and his rising panic as press night approaches really rings painfully true; especially when he learns that the preview went so well largely because 64 members of the London Welsh Rugby Team had been there to urge him on, and that his foundation is on shaky ground.
The dependency relationship with his disabled daughter Cattrin is perfectly weighted. Charlotte Gray hobbles around the stage, shackled by the needs of her father, till she finds love and the desire to fly away. Gray’s portrayal of a persuasive young woman who is determined to push her father on, but refuses to be torn in two by him, is beautifully balanced.
And there are some endearing ensemble scenes of artistic types whiling away their days between engagements, snuggled innocently in bed together to keep warm, sharing a newspaper and playing roulette with the football results; all doubtless written from deep personal experience.
“The Light of Heart” may not have the dramatic drive of Williams’ later plays. There is a sense that he was spreading his wings and learning how to soar above autobiography. But it is a delight. Watching it felt like calling in at a jumble sale and finding a valuable antique.
Needless to say, the Clwyd company does it complete justice.
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