Movement Director: Catherine Bennett
Director: Paul Davies
Reviewer: Jacqui Onions
From the gathering point at Wales Millennium Centre, the audience is led to a disused listed building in Cardiff Bay; a fitting and atmospheric setting to explore Wales’ past, present and future. The starting point for Black Stuff was the short stories of David Alexander, which were brought to Volcano’s attention by his niece, Betty Rae Watkins, with one in particular capturing director Paul Davies’ imagination – The Hangman’s Assistant. From there, ideas have exploded – arguably a little too far – in many directions to form Black Stuff.
In his programme notes, Davies says of the piece, “Feel what you can…” This reviewer, for one, feels a little bewildered. There are some captivating moments within Black Stuff but they seem disjointed with a lack of a cohesive thread running through the piece. The opening is strong, with the cast of four (Aled Bidder, Rhys McLellan, Neal McWilliams and Barbara Sarmiento Araña) humorously presenting the characters that they will portray and their own takes on what the show is about, with each of them firmly believing that it centres around them. However, none of these characters are really developed or explored in any depth. The whole piece is all a bit too abstract for it to be about any of them.
The humour of the opening juxtaposes with the eerie anticipation of the start of the next scene, as the audience are taken to a dark room full of coal. What follows is a wonderful assault on the senses with sights, sounds, smells and the feel of coal under foot all adding to the experience. This would make equally as strong an opening to the piece as the first scene does but they do not feel like they should fit together. This happens throughout the piece, forming a series of interesting yet seemingly unrelated scenes rather than establishing a story arch or theme. This is not helped by the sightline issues caused by the audience positioning within the non-traditional space and much of the physical theatre throughout the piece is lost unless you manage to get yourself right to the front. At one point, many audience members are unable to watch an entire scene unfold.
The energy of the cast and their commitment to the piece is mesmerising. They hold the audience throughout and interest from the audience is never lost, even if you are not entirely sure what is going on.
This is an ambitious site-specific piece from Volcano, with a fresh approach to looking at Wales’ history and culture. It may not be perfect but it has a lot to offer – bewildering yet enjoyable all the same.
Runs until 28 May 2016 | Image: Volcano