Last night I went to see Theatre Company Dirty Protest’s latest offering, How to be Brave, at the Torch Theatre. Working at the Theatre gives me all kinds of access to local and touring productions and this was a company which I’d heard lots about, but not seen before. What I’d heard was that they were very much community based, with hard-hitting performances of work by Welsh writers that aimed to leave audiences thinking. This is certainly what I got.
I took my seat in the round. An unusual stage setting that I had not seen before. The audience were sat in a circle, surrounding a very small stage on the level. This had me wondering how professional it would be, how effective, the limitations on movement, props, lighting and so on. Yet what it could also bring, I soon realised, was a very intimate experience, an involvement in the story, a closeness to the lead character, every expression on her face, every movement, every moment of being trapped, caged in by her own memories and her fear for the future and her daughter, fully realised by the audience.
Dirty Protest are an award-winning Theatre Company who lead the development promotion and production of new writing for Performance. They have worked with more than 200 new Welsh writers, staging new sell-out plays in Theatres and alternative venues from clubs and pubs, to a Kebab shop and even a forest! They were also Winner of 2013 Best Production Wales Critics Choice at the Theatre Critics of Wales awards for the premiere of Katherine Chandler’s Parallel Lines.
How to be Brave was written by Sian Owen, and is based around her own experiences of growing up and Living in Newport, the city that ‘made her’. Owen is a Graduate of the MA Writing for Performance programme at Goldsmiths College. She has gained recognition for her work including BBC Radio 4 drama Pieces and her play Restoration which won the Oxford Playhouse Writing competition. She is currently under commission with Box of Tricks Theatre Company.
In 60 minutes, Laura Dalgleish (as Katie) manages to convey Owens story with passion, humour, fear, sadness and great humility, making us believe it is not only her story but our story too. There was no need for props, only basic lighting, to denote a movement from the past to present, or outbursts of anger and emotion, and sound clips of voices from the past to add authenticity to the production. The mention of Newport, the buildings, the streets, the people, the changes it’s gone through from the War torn past of her Nan’s age and the steel building which she sites are in her very essence, bring the production to life, make it more real and accessible. It is remarkable how beautifully Owen can write about the ordinary and make it quite beautiful.
One of the funniest moments comes when Katie running and cycling (on a child’s BMX bike) scared through the streets of Newport, finds the clock that cursed her as a teenager in her failure to perform a dance act alongside her peers, leaving her humiliated and with the nickname Iceland, ‘because I froze.’ Exhausted and fearful for the future and her sick little girl, she performs the rap by herself, as a 35-year-old adult, much to the dismay of those around her.
The heart of the story, is of course Katie’s love for her little girl. ‘Little one’ as she calls her, is struggling to find her place in the world, knocked down by a little boy’s comment that girls ‘can’t be superheros because they’re not brave’. This and an illness that leads to an operation, throws Katie into a panic and sends her on her journey through the streets of the city she grew up in, searching for the answers she didn’t have then and answers she longs for now. Do we get less brave as we get older?
Dalgleish is commendable, with smooth direction from Catherine Paskell, keeping the audience engrossed throughout the 60 minute show. She is funny, passionate, emotional, angry, interacting with everything and everyone around her. It was hard to remember it was a show, and not an intimate conversation with a close friend or a sudden revelation by a stranger on the street. We could easily have been one of the passers by.
Owen, Dalgleish and the team behind Dirty Protest should be proud of this production. They bring to life humanity on stage, what it is to be human, to be an adult, a mother, a woman in today’s society, to struggle, to doubt, to question. How to be Brave is an immersive drama, with humour passion and emotion, which everyone should see. It is, as it was meant to be, a manual for growing up, for choosing the life you want and for facing your fears in an ever-changing world.