National Theatre Wales’ Feral Monster at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff – review

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Feral Monster Sherman Review

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Thanks to National Theatre Wales for inviting us to review Feral Monster at the Sherman Theatre 

I’ve been reviewing theatre in Wales for more than 25 years now and every so often a production comes along that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and blows you away with its storytelling, creativity, and powerful themes.

Such is the case with Feral Monster, the bold new musical from National Theatre Wales, which gained an emphatic standing ovation when my 14 year old and I watched one of the preview performances at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, before it opens properly tonight. From the onset, you just know you’re watching something significant, important and groundbreaking,

Feral Monster tells the story of Jax (she/they/whatever), expelled from school, living with her nan in a tiny, boring village and even messing up a job interview at the local chippy. Her close friends – all male – call her a tomboy, playfighting and bantering together as they hang out in the local park. When Jax meets Ffion, curly-haired, intelligent, dressed in rainbow dungarees and with strong opinions on labels and identity, there’s awkwardness amid the instant attraction, fumbles behind the bus shelter, all the dramas of first love, and plenty of relatable adolescent turmoil. It’s all set to an original soundtrack which fuses together grime, R&B, soul, pop and rap, written by Nicola T Chang and performed live on stage by Alex Comana, a sound artist and performer.

The age guidance of 14+ comes with good reason, with strong language, and references to exploration of gender identity and sexuality, pornography, sex, death, self-harm, childhood trauma, mental ill health, poverty and drugs. There are depictions of alcoholism, violence, knife crime, sexual activity and theatrical representation of suicide.

Yes, it’s hard hitting at times but it’s brilliantly funny too with plenty of laugh out loud moments amid the tension and emotion.

Feral Monster Sherman Theatre review
Feral Monster Sherman Theatre review

By far the most grown-up show my 14 year old has seen, it shares the very real experiences of queer young people living in working class communities of rural Wales, the kinds of stories you don’t usually see depicted on stage but which really need and deserve to be told.

Created by an all LGBTQIA+ creative team, writer Bethan Marlow developed the story in close collaboration with teenagers across Wales, including students at Pupil Referral Units in Pembrokeshire and the LGBTQIA+ youth club of GISDA, a young people’s support charity working in Gwynedd.

It’s incredibly powerful, and listening to audience members chatting in the auditorium after the show, seeing the tears in their eyes, and reading what’s been posted on social media, it’s clear these are stories with a realness that resonates. There was certainly plenty that rang true to me.

Rebecca Hayes is perfectly cast as Jax. We last saw Hayes playing the title role in Peter Pan in the Sherman’s family Christmas show, where they brought an arrogant swagger and slightly menacing side to a character most of us associate with Disney or panto. As Jax, Hayes once again effortlessly commands the stage and is so very, very watchable in the way they move, speak and sing. It would have been easy to make Jax’s final monologue overly dramatic but Hayes never does this, and it’s all the more powerful for their understated delivery that fits true to the character they’ve created. Hayes has to be one of the most exciting new young performers in Wales and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Feral Monster Sherman Theatre Cardiff review

Carys Eleri as Jax’s Nan is wonderfully warm and funny but no-nonsense in the way only Welsh nans can be, while Lily Beau (who, again, we’ve seen on stage at the Sherman previously, as Stevie in the brilliant The Brothers Grimm) gives confident and charismatic Ffion a subtle underlying insecurity. I would have liked to have seen more of her home life, away from the context of Jax.

Geraint Rhys Edwards as Jax’s alcoholic dad, Leila Navibi as Cuz and Nathanial Leacock as Sam make up the rest of the cast, all giving strong and emotive performances of complex characters.

The supporting cast also portray the chaotic thoughts in Jax’s mind, conveying her turmoil, confusion, passions and more, exploring all the things she can’t say out loud. It works so well, not least because it lets the young people in the audience realise these confused inner monologues are normal.

We noticed quite a few groups of young people in the audience; it’s no surprise this production is popular with schools and other youth organisations and with this in mind, National Theatre Wales have created an accompanying outreach programme for schools and colleges, featuring talks by the lead creatives and Key Stage 4 digital lesson plans, while young musicians across Wales will have the opportunity to learn about making music for theatre and to perform in pre-show or post-show gigs. Additionally, in in each venue, National Theatre Wales are working with local LGBTQIA+ groups to create ‘public living rooms’, where audiences are welcome to gather before and after the performances.

Feral Monster Sherman Review

Feral Monster is at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, until Saturday 24 February. Book online here.

It’s then on tour at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from Thursday 29 February to Friday 1 March; Pontio, Bangor, Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 March; Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli, Wed 13 March; Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, Thursday 21 and Friday 22 March. Full details of the production and tour here.

Photographs by Kristina Banholzer

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