Thursday, May 02, 2013

Review: A Small Spit of Land

Anthony Reynolds may be dead but that didn't prevent him putting in a sparkling performance at his own memorial in Splott, Cardiff, on Saturday night. Accompanied by the Adamsdown Community Choir and the Sinfonia Cymru chamber orchestra he delivered his song cycle, A Small Spit of Land, with posthumous panache.

This was the schema: a deceased Reynolds would sing a series of songs that formed a loose narrative of his own tragically curtailed life. Writer John Williams - in character as local wide boy Johnny Revive - would link the ballads by way of an ironic and witty eulogy.

And so it proved. After the announcement of his unfortunate demise Reynolds arrived in the theatre, large as life, and belted out opening tune I Was Born - a bravura entrance if ever there was one. Thematically his songs were mainly concerned with identity (I Was Born; Welsh, In Parenthesis), place (A Small Spit of Land; Streets of Tremorfa) and escape (Dear Melvyn; Song of Leaving).

The simultaneous pull of birthplace and the need to break free of its limitations underpinned much of this musical drama. It was amusing to learn, for instance, that Reynolds' favourite TV programme growing up on a Cardiff council estate was The South Bank Show. Yet it is absolutely this yearning for culture that would later provide an artistic route out and a legitimate means of avoiding "honest labour".

Visually the production was intriguing. A montage of images (the youthful Reynolds; Jack videos; RS Thomas etc) was projected onto an elevated backdrop. On the stage the splendid Sinfonia Cymru did their thing. As did appealingly coiffeured guitarist Glyn Kerry Groves. On the floor a crooning Reynolds wandered amidst a set of domestic props that suggested the ordinary but subconsciously promised more - a TV set (culture), bed (sex) and a drinks table (intoxication).

The venue itself was an unexpected delight - a cool theatrical space hidden away on the upper floor of an old building on Sanquhar Street, Splott. The easy option, I'm sure, would have been to stage the show at Chapter Arts Centre but given the subject matter the chosen locale was perfect. And it is always amusing to observe a Cardiff theatrical crowd outside of its Canton/Pontcanna comfort zone.

So often productions that have a local or community dimension end up being patronising or amateurish. This was neither. The songs were strong, the performances of a very high standard, and the linking eulogy smart and funny. That Reynolds didn't sentimentalise his upbringing and was quite open about his ambivalence towards being Welsh and working class gave the piece added narrative bite.

So, RIP Anthony Reynolds, but here's hoping that sometime in the near future he can rise phoenix-like from the ashes and along with his talented cohorts put in a repeat performance. Certainly, A Small Spit of Land, is a production that I would be delighted to watch again.

*The above picture shows Anthony Reynolds on stage during A Small Spit of Land. ©Alister Brenton Photography.