“Roll Up! Roll Up! for the great unravelling!” announces John Daniel as his life’s possessions and his memories begin to ebb away in Ed Thomas’s new play, On Bear Ridge, currently playing at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre.
Bear Ridge Stores, the dependable family butchers and grocers has reached its last stand on a bleak Welsh mountain. The neighbouring village community has mysteriously disappeared and the last petrol pump for 30 miles stands empty. The stores contents of contraband goods have been whittled away to a few solitary potatoes and onions, as owners John Daniel and Noni defiantly drink the last dregs of the whiskey while remembering good times, when everyone was on the same side and the old language was prominent. However, the arrival of The Captain at the stores, forces John Daniel and Noni to reconnect with recent developments and find out more about their new guest.
On Bear Ridge features a stark, edgy setting of a tumbledown store with piles of broken furniture, empty drinks crates and a cupboard of trinket boxes looking out on to a bleak Welsh snow-covered mountain. This not only reflects the physical predicament the characters find themselves in, but also a sense of the ultimate loss. As the sound of aircraft and missiles from an unknown enemy fly overhead, there is a sense of a history of stories and situations that have brought the central characters to a somewhat surreal journeys end. Bear Ridge Stores has been the heart of a community of characters for over a century, but shortly will be no more.
Rhys Ifans evokes a gamut of emotions as John Daniel, a character that struggles to maintain his memories of the old language and his lost son. Wandering through the endless corridors of his mind, compartmenting and preserving memories for one last stocktake; Ifans portrayal of a man faced with no future, balances strength, desperation and pain with an undercurrent of dry Welsh humour.
Behind such a great character there is also a strong woman. Rakie Ayola combines wisdom and subtlety as Noni, beautifully adding a calmness to desperate situations including her husband’s explanation as to why his trousers are important to his identity or remaining brave when threatened by a stranger. Miss Ayola’s characterisation frequently adds warmth to the scenarios stark, cold background while her on-stage chemistry and connectivity with Rhys Ifans is a joy to watch.
Jason Hughes commands a deep and strong presence as the mysterious Captain. Changing from fighting the common enemy to struggling with his own past, it’s impossible not to feel moved as The Captain recalls his tragic childhood. Hughes portrays The Captain’s weariness and instability to perfection, keeping the audience guessing as to what his next move will be, up to the plays final moments.
Sean Daniel Young as the stores slaughter man, Ifan, uses elements of comedy in his initial scenes, arriving via a hidden door and proceeding to search for items. Not unlike the others, Ifan too has a tragic story, which adds a greater empathy for his character.
The play’s climax, with the characters attempting to take a final stab of normality by taking tea and miming the use of long out of supply condiments as a final madness descends upon them is a memorable and shocking piece of drama.
Compelling, dramatic and original, National Theatre Wales production of On Bear Ridge runs at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff until October 5. It will then run at the Royal Court in London from October 24 until November 23.