One of the highlights of me moving to Cardiff has been getting the opportunity to follow Cardiff’s newest theatre, The Other Room, from the beginning. In stark contrast to other venues in the area, Porter’s is starting to cultivate an audience and an ethos geared towards provocative and bold theatre. Their Life in Close Up season started with the exceptionally staged Blasted; the emotionally-charged The Dying of Today followed; and now it ends here, with a new play – A Good Clean Heart.
The bi-lingual play follows the lives of two brothers who were separated as children – one now growing up in working-class Wales, and the other growing up in working-class South London. Hefin (James Ifan) is on the verge of standing trial for a crime, while Jay (Dorian Simpson) is already paying the price for a life of crime. After making contact through letters and social media, the two men decide to meet up in London; but what starts out as an awkward and emotional reunion turns into an experience neither will ever forget.
A Good Clean Heart is about the nature of individuality, relationships and communication in twenty-first century Britain. Neither of our protagonists connects with their own reality, and are adamant they will find that connection in each other. From handwritten letters to Facebook chats to awkward playground heart-to-hearts, it is definitely a relationship which we invest in. That’s largely due to the two excellent central performances and Alun Saunders’ intelligent script. Ifan is great as the angst-ridden teenager, full of rage and confusion, just wanting to find his place in the world. The speed in which he makes it to London is a little too contrived and rushed for me, but it’s when he does and meets his brother Jay that his own character really comes to life. Simpson, I feel, steals the show – Jay is cheeky and lovable, with a great wit. We know he’s also had a troubled past, but we root for him. For Hefin, this reunion is yet another opportunity to cling on to something that might be real; but for Jay, it already is real, and the emotional intensity as a result of that resonates right until the very end.
Much of what made the other two plays in this season so appealing was retained this time round too. The small cast (only two here again), the claustrophobic nature of the staging, the elaborate staging, it was all here and used to good effect. Two things really stood out for me, though. The first was the projection of subtitles on stage. It added an entirely new layer to the storytelling, as the audience sometimes ran ahead of the characters’ lines, which could have been a problem but ended up working well. In fact, there was fantastic use of visual effects throughout the piece. Letters and Facebook messages were projected across the stage, enhancing that notion of a world where nothing is ever truly private. What I wasn’t so keen on, and I feel like I may be in the minority here, was the set design. Visually, it looked great, and kudos definitely need to go to the designers for their work. However, I felt that that particular set didn’t really add to the story, and choosing a different location may have worked better. However, it was perfectly sufficient and didn’t detract from the story, which is what matters.
A Good Clean Heart, at its heart, is a play about taking risk. Hefin risking failure to meet his estranged brother in London; Jay risking his parole by spending the night with Jay; and several other risky events that I won’t spoil here. It’s fitting, though, that this was the play to end this season, because The Other Room’s creative team have not been shy about their desire to take risks. By choosing to stage this play; by taking a chance on writer Alun Saunders; by Swain making the creative choices she did – they are all the risks of a theatre that is not afraid to take chances. My personal opinion? They’ve hit a home run with this first trilogy of plays, and I’m excited to see where they go next. Alun Saunder’s play is certainly a winner, and deserves every plaudit its receiving.