A premiere of an Ed Thomas play is a rare event. It’s been 15 years since his last play and three decades since his breakthrough hit, House of America, blasted its way on to the stage of the Royal Court, heralding Thomas as the enfant terrible of Welsh theatre while resuscitating a nation’s dramatic tradition in the process.
Throw in Rhys Ifans’ return to a Welsh stage and it’s clear why National Theatre Wales and Royal Court Theatre’s production of On Bear Ridge, directed by Thomas alongside Vicky Featherstone, has been much anticipated.
On Bear Ridge does not disappoint. It is a play that shifts perspective and perceptions from the start – lighting designer Elliot Griggs’ opening flash of light provides an almost subliminal vision of a couple, strong and stoic, before the lights rise fully and we see one-half of that couple writhing on the floor in frustrated agony.
Noni and John Daniel (Rakie Ayola and Rhys Ifans) are the owners of a failing rural grocer/butcher/petrol pump, holding out against what we assume is the unstoppable tide of modernisation. Theirs is a once-valued service that’s no longer needed and yet they know nothing else.
Initially, it feels like a comment on a bucolic community that’s slowly disappearing. This issue clearly informs Thomas’ script. But when Jason Hughes’ Captain arrives at their store seeking shelter from the storm on the mountain, the world they inhabit is turned on its axis and we suddenly find ourselves in a place – and a play – that is chillingly different from what we expected: a near future, or alternate present, that feels just a few degrees from our own in this time of illegal prorogations and climate crises. Deeply absurd yet possible.
The aggressive lyricism that peppered Thomas’ House of America is here and the terrific ensemble gives a warmth and humour to the dialogue that, at times, could only have been hinted at on the page. Ayola imbues the no-nonsense Noni with a resilient optimism, which means the action never strays into self-pity; Sion Daniel Young has the smallest role (young Ifan who helps in the shop) and yet delivers the most emotionally charged monologue near the play’s climax; while Hughes is a continuous threat but achingly human.
It is Rhys Ifans who stands out, though, playing a character perpetually on the cusp of tragicomic rage with pitch-perfect instinct. This extraordinary performance proves once again that he is a very special stage actor following recent turns in Protest Song, King Lear and A Christmas Carol.
It’s clear that Thomas only writes plays when he believes he has something to say. Fifteen years is a long time, but it’s been worth the wait.