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Neon Neon - National Theatre Wales Warehouse, Cardiff 4th May 2013 (Live Review)

Tuesday, 07 May 2013 Written by David Ball

Gruff Rhys has made a career of being different, maintaining a level of interest and surprise in every one of his albums whether with Super Furry Animals, his solo work or various guest appearances. His latest album with Neon Neon, where he combines with American hip hop producer Boom Bip, may be the most experimental project yet.

Their second album ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’ was released on 29th April and across its ten tracks tells the story of Italian publisher and left wing political activist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. On listening to the record it has all the hallmarks of a classic Gruff piece but the complex storytelling is lost a little between the drifting pleasantness of the tunes and Gruff's often hard to decipher lyrics meaning some of the concepts important narrative is lost a little unless you’re listening through headphones or have the lyrics to hand. Even then, it takes a bit of Googling to fill in the blanks of the story.

All credit to Gruff, as well as the National Theatre Wales, for coming up with a unique and quite brilliant way of making sure the message behind his writing gets through. Inviting fans to purchase tickets for any of 5 performances over 4 days in Cardiff, the location; a warehouse near Cardiff central train station is kept secret until you purchase your ticket. You’re then requested to ‘wear something red and bring a copy of your favourite book to give to a comrade’. What results is a crowd of around 500 intrigued souls gathered around an industrial car park on a Saturday evening, all fascinated by what’s to come.

On entering the actual warehouse to a room which has nowhere for a band to play the level of confusion increases before a screen drops allowing everyone to filter into a larger area where Neon Neon plus supporting band are on a scaffold structure dressed to look like an office with Gruff and Boom Bip on typewriters. For the next hour or so they play through ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’ while a collection of actors perform both during and between tracks, providing a detail and expression of the content which suddenly allows the whole thing to make perfect sense.

Parts of stage are wheeled around the floor for various scenes while the talented cast perform a series of expertly written and performed set pieces which join everything together. There are scenes for how Feltrinelli got the manuscript for Dr Zhivago out of the Soviet Union, CIA interrogations, Gruff and fabulous vocalist Lisa Jen Brown piling up shopping trollies while on treadmills, people climbing out of enormous filing cabinets, leopard faced people with guns, body painting, Che Guevara and Feltrinelli playing basketball with Fidel Castro among many other highlights.

Tim Price deserves massive credit for understanding Gruff’s concept and coming up with a dialogue which tells the story and compliments the songs without taking over the entire performance. The whole show is a bit like being sucked into a music video crossed with a documentary while listening to the album all at the same time. It’s all very cleverly put together and expertly performed.

On completion of ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’ we’re treated to a handful of songs from first album ‘Stainless Style’ including the still brilliant sounding ‘I Lust You’. I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘interactive theatre’ but this was one of the most brilliant experiences I’ve ever had watching live music. The balance between gig and theatrical show was spot on and everything was performed almost flawlessly. Yet again Gruff is pushing the envelope and yet again he’s got it spot on.

'Praxis Makes Perfect' is available now. The live show will now move to London.

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