Thirty-something Katie has always struggled to face what life throws at her and it’s become too much. On the day that she needs to be at her strongest, Katie instead embarks on a shambolic, misjudged adventure through Newport involving stolen bikes, muddy bogs and a steel clock. No matter how hard she tries, though, and no matter how fast she runs, she realises that hiding from her problems is impossible.
You only need to look back on Dirty Protest’s last five years to see just how perfectly How To Be Brave fits into their ethos. Wales – and the Welsh experience – sits at the heart of everything the company does, so its no surprise that they’ve latched on to this stunning script by Sian Owen. Only Owen knows how autobiographical her play really is, but there’s no doubt that the script has a truth to it that only comes from experience. Katie isn’t just a woman having a bad day – she is a mother and a daughter, she is working class and just getting by, and she is the product of a life lived entirely in Newport. There is so much to unpack in this hour-long piece of theatre, but Owen does it with the utmost care and attention. By the time the lights go down for the final time, the audience is as spent as Katie is, exhausted and exhilarated by the rollercoaster of emotions she has taken them on.
This isn’t just the coming out party for Owen though – Laura Dalgleish also puts herself on the Welsh map with an astonishingly naturalistic performance. She is an absolute joy to watch on stage, balancing frenetic nervous energy with endearingly dry comic timing. Her control of the text and her knowledge of the character is so well-done that it never feels like she is reciting someone’s lines. She is Katie. Actor and character are interchangeable.
With a script and a performance this strong, its easy to underplay director Catherine Paskell’s contribution. When it comes to actor management, Paskell is arguably one of the best in Wales. Dalgleish seems to have gotten into the very bones of the character and a performance like that doesn’t come without strong direction. Much like in Sugar Baby, Paskell doesn’t try to overcomplicate the production too much. Cory Shipp designs the set to mimic a patch of road, effective in its simplicity, while Dan Lawrence’s diegetic sound design slowly becomes a pivotal part of the production. The focus never really moves away from Dalgleish, though; frankly, the actor doesn’t allow it. Her performance is too engaging, the writing too good.
It’s impossible to talk about How To Be Brave without drawing a comparison to Sugar Baby. Both pieces are rooted firmly in a particular place and bring ‘ordinary’ characters to life in a fresh, extraordinary way. How To Be Brave isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as Sugar Baby, but it absolutely has more heart. There’s also something far more life-affirming about Sian Owen’s play, and the ending is deeply cathartic. This is a celebration of womanhood, of courage, and of Newport. And its brilliant.