Sunday, 14 November 2010



Photo: Gareth Phillips
Fri 12 Nov 2010
The Riverfront, Newport
‘Don’t have dark thoughts,’ so repeats Gwyn Thomas’s father to the young lad as he hands him lemonade outside the onstage pub, before disappearing back through the door. This didn’t deter Gwyn Thomas the great Welsh storyteller though, who is the star in Told By An Idiot’s expressionist, physical interpretation of The Dark Philosophers. Those die-hard fans of The Other Thomas should not expect a literal adaptation of his three novellas. Instead in their eighth (and best-yet) production National Theatre Wales have managed to do something quite remarkable, in not just representing the words of the extraordinary writer, in all their deliciously dark quirks, but in also capturing the spirit of Thomas, his world, his cracking humour and his sharp mind. Once asked to describe his style, the Welsh valleys’ writer proffered ‘Chekhov and chips?’ whilst others have described him as Marx with both tears and laughs.
The Dark Philosophers is a vivid, visual, vital production. Action takes place amidst a brilliantly eccentric, tumbledown set – a tottering staircase of drawers and a stagger of wardrobes and from which the cast appear and disappear, or sit aloft. Musical moments composed and directed by Iain Johnstone stitch the show together, imbued with just the right measure of heartbreak. Other interludes take their jump off point from Gwyn Thomas’ Parkinson appearance, reminding guests of the level of Thomas’ reach in his heyday. In this entertainingly portrayed conceit we see Thomas placed in the TV studio with contemporary guests, including Dolly Parton and his closest match in terms of comic storytelling today, Billy Connolly.
Away from the studio-light glare, characters are coated in coal dust and hardship, jumping at explosions, and so thin they could fall down ‘the cracks between the pavements‘ but still there is laughing, singing, flirting, shagging, and drinking. In the shadows incest, murder, power and exploitation coerce and cajole. Oscar the ogre becomes a wonderfully grotesque, magical realist puppet created by a bad wig and a well choreographed cast. Within his blackly-comic telling Oscar is hated by those who live below his mountain and the audience alike.
Thomas didn’t just conjure up this valleys world, he lived it, and he identified with the lives he warmly chronicled. In this, the first dramatisation of The Dark Philosophers, the narrative jumps from scene to scene, story to story with the cut up speed of the digital age, which is jarring at first, and perhaps needs a little more evolving to find its perfect realisation. Despite this, it manages to inventively evoke the darkness and light of Thomas and of the valleys, amongst which Alex BeckettGlyn Pritchard and Laura Rogers shine bright. As Told By An Idiot and the cast are still improvising and growing the work and I believe this is a show that deserves a touring chance to gain that full row of five stars.
The Dark Philosophers moves to Wrexham at the weekend. Gwyn Thomas’ wonderful 1946 collection of stories The Dark Philosophers is now available through the Library of Wales.

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