Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 19 March, 1996

At several points during Edward Thomas' latest piece for Welsh company Y Cwmni the music of The Velvet Underground blares out. It is the perfect complement to a play which is rather like their compatriot John Cale's viola playing made flesh: you are seldom sure what it is doing or why, but it builds to an impressively imposing whole.

The forgotten city of the title is both a version of the actual Cardiff, devoid of a modern Welsh identity a city in which, after a rugby defeat by England, the crowd mysteriously forgets even how to sing and its re-creation in the dreams of protagonist and would-be writer Carlyle (Patrick Brennan) as a pulsating metropolis populated by "hearts of neon" in which even the mean and violent underside acquires a redemptive electric tang. As Carlyle checks into a hotel which may be partly or wholly the product of his delusion, staffed by doppelgängers of his flatmates, the three performers exchange a series of surrealistic anecdotes about everything from gambling by telephone to an angler with a lustful fixation upon a Sindy doll. Chunks of metafiction insert themselves: at one point Carlyle snaps back to the hotel lobby, explaining away the night porter's bewilderment with, "I think I just had a dream sequence."

Jane Linz Roberts's design emphasises the post-industrial no-man's-land in which the action takes place: isolated shafts of neon gleam above a stage in which wire cages filled with lumps of dead machinery serve as tables and desks; an automatic pistol does service as a telephone receiver and vice versa; Carlyle's male friend Jojo capers around in a red PVC mini-skirt for a good fifteen minutes before anyone passes comment upon it, and his return as the night porter in the same skirt goes entirely unremarked. Russell Gomer in these roles is the most appealing of the trio, with a nice line in psychosis whose humour leavens the atmosphere of increasing pessimism.

The wilful, exuberant unreality of the first act is put in some kind of context after the interval, when it emerges that Carlyle is too mentally disturbed to be allowed to wander the streets, still less when he has just taken a dose of heroin. The characters' imaginations continue to fly in bizarre patterns, but are increasingly undercut by the squalid existence of dead-end drug culture.
Carlyle seems to share Edward Thomas' own ambition "to give a voice to the voiceless" of contemporary Wales. That voice may be a babel of realism, wishes and nightmares, both poetic and parodic at once, but even in its deliberate chaos it remains compelling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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