Archive | October, 2013

cup of tea and a slice of bara brith

28 Oct



Rural South Wales is enchanting and the countryside vast, leaving the real possibility of not seeing anyone else all day. Rather you are more likely to come across rusting agricultural machinery, which looks like it died and was left to rust where it fell; or an older abandoned farm building, just a one side or so, a spillage of dry stone walling. Even in ruins the magic powers of dry stone walling remain beguiling. How did it ever stay up at all? Cormac McCarthy suggested in The Stonemason simply that it is ‘the weight of the world’ that keeps it together and I can’t think what else it could be.

Later, on route back to England, I am offered a slice of bara brith in a café, a ‘speckled bread’ which I have never heard of. It delightfully comes with a knob of butter on the side, announcing that this is a traditional food, not hung up with the anxieties of contemporary fare, all skinny lattes and panic about saturated fats. Although I am later reassured by a Welsh friend that in itself bara brith very healthy. The butter’s optional.

After going through life never having heard of bara brith I then get to hear it mentioned again that night in Bristol. I am at the Bierkeller Theatre watching a New Writing Showcase where I have a short play on. Heather Lister’s wonderfully lyrical play Threads references this and other cakes as three Welsh woman exchange gossip and provide support to each other, and the title for this post is borrowed from the play.


I have been involved in half a dozen such events over the last couple of years and it is remarkable that two of them are never the same. This one, inspirationally curated by Amy Bethan Evans (@princesspiece) had a rich variety of form and content. For example, Charlotte Eastleigh’s piece based on Native American folk tales was told in verse and had an ending I found strangely upsetting. Folk tales in all cultures reference similar natural phenomena or objects, in this case the moon, which in the story’s conclusion becomes a place of exile. Who’d want to be trapped on the moon?

The evening began with A Question’s Mark, an initially amusing, but progressively poignant, monologue told by a young woman in the fog of a hangover, fearing pregnancy, or maybe not, and desperate to throw off the shackles of her family. In Done There, Been That US playwright Kathy Rucker presented us with a setting familiar from certain films – two American prisoners reluctantly bonding in a harsh environment. What utterly set this apart from such films was the scenario; one of the prisoners had dementia and the other acted as a de facto carer. It is easy to forget prisoners get old and have the health complaints we all may suffer from. And prison is no place to get sick or old. Illness and aging are great levellers. Regardless of what he had done in his past it was moving to see him now helpless ‘like a baby’ in a such an unforgiving environment, often mistaking the other prisoner for his defence lawyer, despite the fact his case was lost long ago. 

Criminal activity of a different nature also featured in two other plays.  Esme Le Jeune’s wry In the Absence of Grace, saw defacing of public artworks with a heartbreaking purpose – creating a unique memorial. In contrast The HPL was a great comic piece familiar to anyone with contact with a university. Then, out of the blue, an unexpected act of domestic violence occurs. The audience was unprepared and it was difficult to process this. The writing was sharp and the incident stayed with you long afterwards.

Alex Needham’s deliciously angry play The POG was at times far-fetched or, if you’ve been unemployed recently like myself, unfortunately all too realistic. It envisaged the ultimate conclusion of the government’s treatment of the unemployed. As with prisoners, it is easy to dehumanise people who are unemployed, and it is done so with relish by a hateful media. The POG was ultimately a Kafkaesque nightmare hopefully confined to fiction.

I really enjoyed all the plays and it was great meeting Heather and Kathy beforehand, getting to know them a bit before seeing their wonderful plays.


My own piece, Cross Country, featured two women who grew up in a small town in southern England, like me. In many ways they were opposites or two contradictory aspects of the same person, fire and ice. This is often explored in drama. I can’t think of many Sam Shephard plays that don’t centre around two brothers who are polar opposites. In Cross Country Sam left on a journey common to many young middle-class people, and not so unfamiliar to those from working-class backgrounds these days, a journey of: university, travelling, a job in the London charity sector, then leading a supposedly exciting cultured life whilst living in cramped conditions and forever moaning about the impenetrable London property market.

The New Writing Platform sought to provide an opportunity for writers to see their plays warts and all. There is always something thrilling about seeing your work done and hearing your words spoken. But also nerve wracking. I could suddenly recognise problems with my static, wordy, overlong script. If I had my time again I would make significant cuts. But the actors and director did a great job with it. Most noticeably there was an extended introductory sequence. My play was about the morning after a heavy night but in RJ Lloyd’s direction the night before is played out at the start of the play in a frenzy of mime and dance. The actors were great, Margot Navaellou and Zoe Cotton as the two friends and Catherine Guy as Ma. It is strange that lines you think are funny being met with stony silence while others bring unexpected laughs. The only sequence that panned out as I had originally envisaged in terms of audience reaction was towards the end when Ma reveals she is a lot more clued up about her daughter’s life and the ambiguity of her ‘good deeds’. This happens whilst Ma inspects the garage door, which she had ordered them to paint that morning:


Ma: How you getting on?

Sal: Almost there.

Ma: Jesus, look at that. Sal’s done her side all even and nice. Yours is all splodgy.

Sam: Sorry Ma, I’ve never been much of a painter.

Ma (Shakes head): Just like your father. Useless with his hands. (Smiles) Oh well, I pity all them Africans you built fences for. They must’ve all fallen down by now.

Sam (Laughs): Ma! That dam is now a vital part of the infrastructure of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ma: Rather them than me. (Sighs) But there’s not much money to be made in painting. I’m glad you got the brains. Make some money, keep you away from this god forsaken place. Come on you two, time you got cleaned up. Bathed before the guests arrived.


Participating in such events is peculiar in a way, the play itself flies by so quickly and the whole experience is soon over. The showcase played for three nights, a record Mousetrap-style run by my standards, but I could only get to see the first night unfortunately. It was a shame, it would have been great to see how it developed.

And I also didn’t get to see as much of Bristol as I would have liked. But we did manage to walk along the waterfront, which sated our appetite to some extent. I had no idea that the man who ‘discovered’ North America, or rather discovered it after the North Americans, Italian John Cabot, set sail from Bristol. His statue sat brooding in the harbour, contemplating mysterious lands beyond.  



Then back to London, where a couple of other potential new writing opportunities immediately presented themselves, so I find myself on the merry-go-round once more. I miss Bristol, miss being by the water. And miss Wales of course and our cottage with views of the surrounding countryside dominating the days. The lonely cottage which was enveloped by darkness at night, that kind of total darkness you will only find in the countryside. Both comforting and frightening in equal measure it reminds you how all stories speak to our great fears and need for comfort; of our desire of companionship and primeval fear of the elements, our fear of the dark and unknown.