BLOG Craig Thomas NWR Issue 104
Tea with Mamgu, London Welsh Centre
Entering the London Welsh Centre is like stepping into a bygone era. Though the working men's club aesthetic might be familiar (and remains, to this day, a prominent staple of most Welsh towns and villages), the autodidactic elements here are but a faint reminder of what used to be.
There was once a tradition, often facilitated by the South Wales Miners' Federation, where members of the working class would educate themselves in a vast array of topics. Workers were not looking to escape their class, but to thrive within it. The concept of the educated working-class was an aspirational target, whereas today this ground seems to lay mostly fallow, with most people falling into either the camps of the uneducated working class, or those who aspire to escape into the middle-classes.
Yet here, in the middle of London, there is a sense that such a culture still exists. Proud of its Welsh heritage (flags and signed rugby tops adorn the walls), there are classes to be had and books to peruse. It is not flashy, but substantive. It is more concerned with content over form.
In many ways, this aesthetic reflects the play 'Tea With Mamgu' from Tigz Theatre, written and directed by David Evans. Held in a hall somewhat reminiscent of a school gym prepared for a student production, tables and chairs are arranged around a sparsely adorned stage. A table, a couple of chairs, two bags and a crate of assorted knick-knacks represent the entirety of the first-act props and it only gets scarcer from there. There are no lavish sets, no intricate machinations. War Horse
, this is not.
Yet, this approach works entirely in its favour, making the characters and the subject matter key. Focused on the titular Mamgi (played by Amber Rose Summers), this drama explores the issues of dementia from both the perspective of those who have the condition and those who have to care for them.
Whilst a play about an old lady's struggle with dementia does not seem a ripe topic for broad comedy, there is in fact, a great deal of humour within. The audience (of which there were a fair number), were laughing throughout. Yet it was never malicious, rather somewhat endearing.
This is not to say it was an entire barrel of laughs. There were several punctuations of seriousness that come out of the blue, which were genuinely unsettling and uncomfortable, which in turn helped amplify the point that was being made. As did the sparseness of the stage. The single set-up, representing various eras and locations, helped to reflect the underlying idea of mixing memories and the confusion suffered by Mamgui, without alienating the audience.
Divided into two acts, the first is set in the present day with Mamgu and her two friends (played by Louisa Lowe and Laura Dean) as elderly women living and reminiscing. The second reverts to the 1950s and invokes the genesis of the themes of the first.
The use of young actors to play both the older and younger versions of their characters (though Mamgu is always elderly Mamgu) enhances the fact that objective reality and our subjective experiences do not always correspond.
Enhancing this element is the use of the only male member of the cast, Sion Emyr, who did well playing two diametrically opposed roles in both the grandson and (young) grandfather. The result is the submerging of the audience into the confused memories, as we have to spend a moment working out who he is, just like Mamgu does.
There are solid performances all round. All deal well with comedy, a skill arguably more challenging than drama. Special mention must go Amber Rose Summers, playing Mamgu, who did well to flip back and forth between the poles of comedy, fear and confusion, with each switch being more unsettling than the last.
Generating a sense of frustration, pity and bittersweet humour, the audience were able to get a glimpse of the difficulty of seeing a loved one fade away leaving only fragments remaining, losing them one piece at a time.
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