Review: Tic Toc, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

Kate Griffin visits Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre as the Welsh tour of the new musical, Tic Toc gets underway.

Music has the power to take you back in time, to conjure up a personal memory or an entire era. In Tic Toc, a group of friends gather for an anniversary reunion and find that the old tunes evoke memories – as well as stirring up powerful emotions.

Tic Toc catapults us back to the 1960s and 70s, but not swinging London or groovy California. This is the much less well-told story of female garment workers in the South Wales Valleys. This was a boom time for clothing factories, a time when female machinists could earn a decent wage for their skills. They had to contend with a high-pressure working environment and pay discrimination, but the flipside was new spending power and a sense of camaraderie.

In Tic Toc, the solidarity of a tight-knit group of women is what drives them – and the story – forward. We see their struggle to get paid as much as male workers, years before the Equal Pay Act became law. And we see how disloyalty to the group is the ultimate transgression, causing a rift that may never heal.

Tic Toc touches on a lot of serious issues: wage inequality, workplace injuries, the poverty trap. We feel the pain of awkwardly-named Apollonia, abandoning her dreams of becoming a teacher because her family can’t afford a grammar school uniform for her. One of the standout songs features Mary-Anne Roberts as Rose, challenging our nostalgia about the “good old days” and sharing her own reality of facing racism. The show is also proudly bilingual, showing how natural it is for communities to switch between Welsh and English in the same sentence.

Tic Toc will tour Welsh venues throughout February and March after opening at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff

But the core of this story is the power of female friendship and the connections between the brilliantly drawn characters. Every actor in this piece has a powerful voice in her own right – both literally and metaphorically. We go back and forth in time to hear their individual stories unfold, as tension builds towards the moment of reunion. Will it be a true reconciliation or a bitter moment when old conflicts resurface?

Writer and director Valmai Jones told entssouthwales that she drew heavily on the real-life accounts of former garment workers. This grounding in real stories must be one of the reasons why Tic Toc rings true. Details like the workers’ overalls are spot-on and obviously the product of more careful research.

Tic Toc has echoes of stories set in other places – Made in Dagenham, or perhaps Nine to Five. But it is firmly grounded in the Valleys and clearly Welsh at its heart. Go for the songs and the laughs, stay for the pitch-perfect depiction of a specific place and time.

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