I’ve not ever really been able to get into soap operas, whether on radio or TV. I’m pleased to say I care enough about the characters in Sophia Square to want to follow them into series 2, which is probably because, with the exception of Charli, they all seem like rounded individuals with their good and bad points. One thing that really makes Sophia Square stand out is its setting and characters, who combine Cardiff with the little-known element of its population, the Afro-Caribbean community. As such, it’s created some really fascinating characters and I admire its gutsiness. As we all know, The Archers is still stuck in a mythical Middle England which is pretty well white-washed, despite efforts in the last 20 years to diversify. I much admired Dan Allum’s Atching Tan, but it painted its rural community in pretty broad strokes, almost to the point of stereotype. I feel things are rather more nuanced with Sophia Square. Also, one thing that has always bothered me with TV soaps, particularly EastEnders, is that no one ever seems to have a job in that show. Or, if they do, they manage to work minutes away from where they live. This suspension of disbelief is eased somewhat in Sophia Square due to the fact that the Casablanca Café is the core of the community, and Delroy, Marilyn, Levi, Hannah, Josh, and (sometimes) Alice work there, making things a bit more plausible. The students are students and therefore have reason to be hanging around the Square. Trev owns a shop and works there. Mary is (presumably) retired, and Sian works night shifts. Sophia Square is a place I’ve never visited but which I can believe exists. As Trev says in the fifth episode, “You’re in Wales now. Carrier bags cost 5p and manners cost nothing.”
The first series sees the residents dealing with the unexpected return of Michael “Alice” Hatfield, who has just finished serving time in jail for arson. His grandmother, Mary, is pleased to see him, but he ruffles the feathers of Marilyn, his best friend Josh’s mother. Marilyn and Delroy Brown run the iconic Casablanca Café. Josh works there, too, when not doing R & B DJ-ing on the side. Josh seems equivocal about the return of his friend, and there are hints that all may not be well with Alice’s ex-girlfriend, Olivia, daughter of local shop owner Trevor. Trevor and Delroy, as well as pastor Kwame, preach forgiveness for Alice’s crimes, but some of the Square’s residents are less lenient. Three Anglo-Welsh students, Harry, Charli, and Summer, have moved into Alan’s house, already causing a great deal of tension amongst themselves and with Alan and Mary.
Like any good soap, Sophia Square features a range of age groups and professions. And like any amateur production (though backed by Radio Cardiff, Sophia Square’s actors are volunteers), it features a range of acting abilities. I’m pleased to say, however, that the main cast members are played by solid actors, particularly scene-stealing Sule Rimi as Alice. The actors sometimes have challenging material to work with; for example, Jenny Ashton as Sian, one of the least developed characters (so far) has to field a one-way phone call from fiancé Rhys. It says in Sian’s character notes that she moved to Cardiff from the Rhondda, and I’d really like to know more about her. Similarly, it’s a bit difficult to get much sense of character from the students yet, other than that Charli (Bryony Anderson) is a bitch, Summer (Melissa Edmunds) is broke and a peacemaker, and Harry (Rhys Edwards) is a somewhat sarcastic boy. On the other hand, Wella as Trev is a delight. I’d also like a bit more development from Hannah (Nazarenne Duhaney), who, despite her character notes, comes off as very sullen and emo. Delroy (Leon Charles) and Marilyn (Donna Sibanda) form the backbone of this production.
I also really like Faye and Latifah, who have their own real show on Radio Cardiff. I know Black History Month was slightly shoehorned into the first series of Sophia Square, but it doesn’t feel that out of place when Faye and Latifah work their semi-improvised magic. I even learned quite a bit from their spontaneous explanations to Hannah. Mary’s story of her teenage years in the late 1950s rings very true, especially with the history of the ‘60s which I was reading a few months ago, and yet seems like a bit of an infodump. I would have preferred to have learned her story bit by bit, but there are obviously still some revelations to come.
Sophia Square is a “community project.” It relies on the technical expertise of Jeremy Rees and the editing know-how of Rhys Phillips as well as the efforts of the actors to create a finished product that some have said rivals the drama you hear on the BBC. It sounds really professional, and while I have heard many different ways of amateur-mixing an audio drama, the musical transitions in Sophia Square are particularly good. There is a sense of slickness to the production values as well as a sense of depth to the sound effects, from Alice’s whipping up some scrambled eggs for Mary to the R & B night. Chris Davies, Rhys Edwards, Scott Travers, and Wyn Williams have all contributed writing to Sophia Square, but it is really Alison Plant’s baby. I think it’s a spectacular achievement and can’t wait to hear more.