Hugh Hughes welcomes us as we enter the Pit Theatre at the Barbican. He congratulates us on the various efforts we made to get there tonight. Someone came by bike – imagine. On such a cold night. If Build-a-Bear Workshop offered a storytelling bear option, Hughes’s lilting Welsh tones would be perfect for the voice. We even love him for berating the latecomers, and know we’re in safe hands for two hours of unconventional storytelling.
Stories from an Invisible Town starts when the Hughes Mam decides to move from the family home in Anglesey into a flat, following the death of her husband. Her children, Delyth, Derwyn and Hugh, all pitch in to pack a life into boxes. Hugh is confronted by myriad recollections and associations as he comes across objects from his childhood. He calls these eruptions “memory-bombs” and his project is, in part, an effort to create a map of the Hughes siblings’ childhood.
Forced to return to the house together for the first time, Hugh must face the broken relationship of Delyth and Derwyn who, for reasons never explained, have fallen out to such an extent that they can’t even share the same space during the most significant family traumas. Realising that his memory is inextricably bound up with those of his brother and sister, Hugh’s attempts to bring them together become the show’s emotional journey.
What we get is a patchwork of re-enacted conversations, film, audio and storytelling, a smattering of singsong and a bit of audience participation. Hugh and his siblings are masters at rescuing a maudlin moment with humour or puncturing our laughter with a reminder that nothing lasts forever. We feel privileged to share these recollections with the family. They draw their characters with broad brush strokes, happy to laugh at Derwyn’s ambitions to run not one but two burger vans, and Delwyth’s former drink problem. Hugh, however, remains an enigma throughout – he brushes past a flirtation with ballet dresses and make-up, and puts his brother and sister’s relationship centre-stage. We get a sense that by throwing open his creative process he is keeping his most intimate moments safe.
With its sense of intimacy and use of shaky home videos, I felt like I wanted to be curled up on Mam’s sofa with a cup of tea listening to these three joke and bicker and fool around. They are brilliantly supported on stage by Tom and Jerry, a technician and a musician who act as reminders that, however seductive nostalgia is, memories can only ever be framed, re-created and dramatised. Find the right frame and a sense of shared history doesn’t restrain and inhibit, but can heal and act as a launchpad into the future.
Hugh is reluctant to dwell on some of the darker implications of his theme. But this is theatre as a salve, and it cannot fail to draw you in. Its manifesto – that through sharing stories, laughter and group sing-along we can repair, resolve and move forwards – is a compelling one. So warm is Hugh’s vision for the future, whatever it may hold, that you will want to exchange hugs with your neighbour as the lights come down.
Stories from Invisible Town is at the Barbican Pit until 8December, and then on tour. Go to www.invisibletownstories.co.uk for more information.