Hosts of Rebecca - the Grand Trip

Chris Blenkarn

Janet and I fled Shrewsbury on a sunny Friday afternoon, bound for Mold and the celebrated Theatre Clwyd. Driving through the town centre we passed a newspaper hoarding - "Monica Lewinsky to visit Shrewsbury?" - which gave us something to think about during the hour-long drive to Mold. Had she got an aunt here, was she a Brother Cadfael fan, or was there something specific about the men of Shrewsbury that Janet hadn't told me? At any rate, there were no queues of men forming so perhaps it was just a rumour.

The weather grew dismal as we approached Wales, and on our reaching Mold it began to drizzle. Finding out just where the theatre was before we looked for the hotel seemed a good idea as we intended to walk there if possible. We followed the brown tourist signs and promptly left Mold, somewhat to out surprise, and found ourselves eventually at the top of a hill, where several unprepossessing civic edifices, looking as if they'd been designed by Albert Speer, dominated the landscape. One of these grim buildings was the theatre, but happily the interior was a vast a improvement on the exterior, warm, welcoming and spacious. It housed two theatres, the Anthony Hopkins and the smaller Emlyn Williams theatre.

We collected our tickets and reconnoitred the almost empty theatre, locating the bar - no, Gareth wasn't in it - and its proximity to the Ladies. This is very important when visiting an unfamiliar theatre, especially if you have borne children and your bladder control isn't what it was. Much valuable interval drinking time can be lost while queuing for the Ladies. Back outside it was still drizzling. The view of the town and hills beyond was dreary, but we were told it was spectacular on clear days.

Back in the town we found our hotel without any trouble, dumped our bags and went out to explore Mold. It's a small, homely town, good on pubs and fish and chip shops, which is always a comfort, but rather lacking in late night eating places. For a north Welsh town there was a singular absence of Welsh accents on the streets. Everyone seemed to come from Liverpool or the Wirral. It may be that somewhere it has a Latin Quarter teeming with excitement and exotic delights, but if there is we didn't find it.

I had a fancy to explore the numerous charity shops but Janet, being fully aware of my proclivities, marched me firmly past Help the Aged and onwards to Tesco's; we'd decided that eating out would be impractical and instead we reverted to our usual convention practice of buying cheese and crackers (our custom long before Wallace and Gromit) and eating in our room.

Standing by the deli counter in Tesco's, Janet asked for a particular small piece of Mature Galloway Cheddar only to have the little old lady on her left wistfully say, "I was going to buy that." Being a kind person (except when hurrying friends past charity shops) Janet waived her claim and instead purchased some Somerset Farmhouse. I added a small fancily-named piece of Caerphilly flecked with Spring Onion which Janet gave a wide berth, describing it as 'that funny lump with bits in' - she has a real gift for language. I later discovered she was labouring under the delusion the black bits were nuts - no comment.

Escaping to the wine department, we realised with horror that neither of us had brought a corkscrew, so we were reduced to buying a screw top bottle of cheap red. While we were working out which one to have - whatever happened to Hirondelle? - I was surprised to be hailed by one of my neighbours from distant Teesside who just happened to be the same aisle. It's a small world, isn't it?

By the time we had located the grapes, tomatoes - never say we don't eat a balanced diet - and the last chocolate croissant in Mold, it was well past five o'clock, and we hadn't a knife with which to cut the cheese and spread the butter. The best I could suggest was my nailfile, but Janet demurred, I can't think why. A cashier told us where the nearest hardware store was, but it was closed, so we had to sneak into the hotel dining room and appropriate a knife, to which Janet added a salt cellar for the tomatoes. We put it back later, honest.

Time for a nice cup of tea. We munched crackers and cheese and watched the television news. Nothing on Monica Lewinsky visiting Shrewsbury. We tried to find a local news channel in case there was anything about the play, but there was a mysterious absence of all things Welsh. Even the weather forecast referred to Manchester and Wolverhampton. What had happened to the indigenous population of North Wales, and its weather? Had they gone through a Stargate in search of Owain Glyndwr? Should we send for Scully and Mulder?

Two glasses of Chateau Bin-End and it was time to set off. The hotel had told us there was no bus service to the theatre - evidently the local transport authority thinks only car-owners go to theatres - so we had ordered a taxi. In the hotel lobby a gentleman asked if he might share it, as he was going to see Hosts of Rebecca, too. Conversing en route, we discovered he was currently appearing in the Emlyn Williams, but this was his night off. What was he appearing as, we asked? Well, he replied, last night I was Adolf Hitler but tomorrow I'm Tony Hancock.

The Anthony Hopkins theatre was impressive, steeply raked seating with plenty of leg room. The curtain was up, showing a dark, sparse set, the centrepiece a very effective stylised tree with branches overhanging much of the stage. Hosts of Rebecca is based on the sombre 60s novel by Alexander Cordell, the second of a trilogy on the sufferings of the Welsh working class in the nineteenth century. The title is taken from the Rebecca Riots, a Welsh revolt by the poor against the imposition of toll gates in particular and the miseries of their daily lives in general; the rioters wore women's' clothes to hide their identity.

The name Rebecca derives from Rebecca, the wife of Isaac. As you and I are doubtless aware, she was sent to him by her brothers with the words "Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies" (Genesis chapter 24, verse 60. What do you mean, you didn't know? How will you ever to get anywhere in pub quizzes?)

Actually, although the name was familiar I had forgotten who the biblical Rebecca was, so Janet later volunteered to get a bible out and make a search. For some reason she started at the end of the Old Testament and worked backwards, so it took her two and a half hours instead of ten minutes. I think she must have been playing Beatles' records backwards for too long and it's become a habit; in mitigation she does have a ghost in her house which must be a strain on her nerves.

I don't want to give away too many details of the plot; suffice it to say the events revolve around the struggles of a poor family trying to eke out a living from subsistence farming and toiling in the mines. Illness, want, death, imprisonment - this is familiar territory, though no less authentic for that. What lifted it far above the familiar theme was the quality of the script and the sheer power of the acting. It was an absolutely superb piece of ensemble playing from start to finish, all the acting at full throttle.

From the moment that Gareth, who played the narrator as well as one of the characters, stepped forward to set the scene, the audience was gripped. (Nice to hear Welsh voices, at last!) Gareth himself was in magnificent voice, as were the rest of the cast. It would be invidious to pick out just one performance in such a fine cast, but if I had to choose, it would be Sion Probert as the grandfather. This decision is in no way influenced by our meeting him in the bar later, I swear to you.

There was much unaccompanied hymn singing, familiar tunes to a lapsed Methodist, which was equally a joy to hear. Yes, Gareth does sing but only, I think, in the last scene! After the last lines were spoken, the mesmerised audience remained silent. If you've ever been spellbound by a stage performance, you will know how you really don't want to come out of the spell. What you want is to sit in the darkness and savour it. At the same time, you want to tell the cast how great they are, which is why this cast received a well-deserved standing ovation for the second night running. People, you were spectacular.

Pictures by Iolo Williams

Gareth Thomas as Preacher Tomos Traherne, in Hosts Of Rebecca by Alexander Cordell adapted by Manon Eames at Clwyd Theatr Cymru

Afterwards, still somewhat stunned, we found Gareth in the usual place. We gave him a birthday card as it was his birthday - the two generally go together in my experience. Some drinks later, the bar closed, as they do, and we cadged a lift back to the hotel. We sat up late talking, consuming more cheese and biscuits and wine until all the nice red stuff had disappeared.

I have to admit awaking the following morning feeling a touch fragile. Do you know those moving words from Charles Dickens;

"Can I see thee lying, dying,
On a log
Expiring Frog?"

Perhaps we should have stuck to the nice cup of tea after all. For the first time in living memory, I missed breakfast. Janet, being made of sterner stuff, got to the dining room with a minute to spare and breakfasted on scrambled eggs with Adolf Hitler/Tony Hancock. She brought me some fruit juice and toast, and shortly afterwards we loaded our bags, four tomatoes, some grapes and the remaining portions of cheese into her car and strolled off to take the air in Mold.

The morning mists had cleared and it was quite sunny. The high street was taken up with a market, every other stall selling primulas. Janet permitted me go into the Oxfam shop, as I had given her two of my Ibruprofen. I nearly bought a brown silk shirt, but then didn't. We tried to look inside the church but it was locked. Passing the tourist office, we spotted a poster for Rebecca, next to a flyer asking "Are you interested in ferrets?"

Gareth had asked us for a lunchtime drink with his wife and Mr Probert, so we tore ourselves away to the Griffin, where we stuck to black coffee. If you are ever in Mold, remember that this pub does a two meals for the price of one offer that is excellent value, though on this occasion we were merely spectators. Gareth arrived slightly late, having been scouring the market and Boots the Chemist in vain for a medium-sized packet of washing powder. We felt privileged to catch this glimpse of the glamourous life of an Actor. Before long we had to leave for Shrewsbury where I was to catch the train back home. Jane displayed consummate timing in getting me onto the platform three minutes before the train was due, though unfortunately not in time to buy a paper to get the latest on Ms Lewinsky's visit.

As the train pulled out, it passed the Abbey Foregate Signal Box; if Monica turns out to becoming all that way because she's a Cadfael fan, I hope she won't be too ddisappointed to learn that the Foregate is so situated. I would hate her to think Cadfael sucks.

Chris Blenkarn

PS I am informed by the Shrewsbury Chronicle that Ms Lewinsky's anxiously awaited book is being printed by a local Shropshire firm and Shrewsbury is therefore to have the honour of her presence at one of only four book signings in this country.

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Last updated on 26th of June 1999.