Theatre Review: Tylwyth (Sherman Theatre, Cardiff) ★★★★

Tylwyth revisits the group of characters first seen ten years ago in Sherman Associate Artist Daf James’ award-winning Llwyth. A theatrical sequel, yes, but one where if you’re new to the characters, you won’t feel lost. If you are familiar with the previous play though, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of enjoyable nuggets and references. Tylwyth had a shortened run in 2020 due to Covid (closing a week into a planned tour), and this production makes some clever timeline tweaks to keep the story ten years on from Llwyth, while acknowledging the slight delay in its return to the stage.

Danny Grehan, Arwel Davies, Micahel Humphreys and Simon Watts in Daf James’ Tylwyth at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

There’s nothing more disappointing than a sequel that feels like it’s from another world to the original. Thankfully that’s not the case here, and it immediately feels like we’re dropping back into the world of Llwyth, but one that’s evolved in every aspect in a deeply satisfying way. Just as the characters have matured—or at least aged—so has there been a maturing of James’ writing.

We’re reunited with Aneurin (Simon Watts) as he’s dealing with the ‘next stage’ of life. With newly adopted children, he’s worried about the impact of fatherhood on his relationship with his partner Dan (Steffan Harri). A quick flashback reminds us of how they met, and pulls the previous story through to enrich the present. Meanwhile, Gareth (Michael Humphreys) and Rhys (Arwel Davies) are wondering what happens to their relationship post-marriage, and post Gareth being the most successful gym franchise owner in Wales. A heavy dose of nostalgia rears its head when Dada (Danny Grehan) announces that he’s moving. Younger man Gavin, now all ‘grown-up’ (well, 25), also crashes back into their lives in spectacular style via a night out that brings back old memories and old habits.

Stylistically, James and director Arwel Gruffydd have created a piece that is unapologetically theatrical but keeps storytelling and character at its heart.  Performed on a series of white-tiled blocks moving concentric circles to create different spaces, the staging is entirely abstract, relying on minimal props to create each scene and firing up our imaginations as audience members. At the core of this production are the brilliantly performed characters and the engaging narrative. Equally effective are the wonderful moments of theatricality; there’s a beautiful piece of ensemble work choreographed to music, as various characters emerge in the sauna, topped by Dada, resplendent in sequins.

Simon Watts and Steffan Harri in Daf James’ Tylwyth at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

Those who saw Llwyth will know how Gruffydd and James integrated Welsh musical tradition into the writing and performance, and Tylwyth continues to build on this, with original music composed by James. Aneurin’s monologues are fused with lyrical prose that reflect traditional Welsh music. While there’s an eclectic soundscape comprising pop music past and present, and, integral to Welsh storytelling and choral tradition, there’s a choir performance. A nice parallel with James’ original play, with a great in-joke too. With Lywyth, the choir was so pivotal to the story, in that bringing together of a community, Welsh tradition and performance, and it feels an equally vital part of this play.

It’s impossible not to rave about Tylwyth. The writing, direction, and performances are all pitch-perfect. Beyond that it feels important too, in its marking of a decade of queer storytelling. A decade of owning Welsh queer storytelling. Ten years ago, it was a revelation to see the story of an unapologetic group of gay men on a Welsh stage. It still is to some degree. It’s all too often a revelation to see queer stories at the forefront, even more so in a main stage show. It’s also meaningful to have queer stories that age with us. In a notoriously youth-centric—often outright ageist—community, the chance to address aging and the new challenges that queer life throws at us as we age is essential.

Daf James addresses those issues head on. A lot has changed for gay people in the past ten years, both good and bad, and for the first time, we’re faced with many new questions that are both exciting and sometimes uncomfotable to address. In looking at family life, choosing marriage and children, Tylwyth asks out loud the scary and important questions many gay people ask themselves: How do I do this? Do I mimic straight culture? Is it what I’ve been told I want, or do I actually want it? And if I navigate it another way, how does that work?

Aled Ap Steffan and Simon Watts in Daf James’ Tylwyth at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.

In theory, gay people should be able to rip up the rule book and do things another way. Just because marriage is on the table, it doesn’t mean it’s the only option or that it has to be approached in a traditional, heteronormative way. Equally important and uncomfortable are the questions about children. Saying out loud, as Tylwyth does, the fact that nobody regulates how straight people have children; they do it all the time, after all. In the play, the question of adoption versus a surrogate comes up, as does the underlying fear of not being “good enough” to adopt. These are important, if uncomfortable, conversations to have.

Tylwyth asks important questions about getting older and finding your place in the world. What if everything you knew and relied upon is falling away, changing to the point of being unrecognizable? The answer James offers us rings powerfully; queer community and friendship.

Ultimately, chosen family wins through, as the friendship group comes together united despite years of change and the many differences between them. Even when marriage and babies are on the cards for queer people—or perhaps then even more so—the family that we choose to have in our lives is everything to us. Seeing this group of friends reunited as a family makes Tylwyth feel like ‘coming home’ as a queer audience member, with a story that understands the difficulties in our lives, but reminds us of the good.

By Dr Emily Garside

Daf James’ Tylwyth is on tour until October 30th, 2022. Find more details on dates and venues on the Theatr Genedleathol Cymru website.

Hysbyseb Tylwyth

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