Languages

Operation Julie - Theatre companies join forces to create a psychedelic stage musical in lockdown

Over four decades ago, rural west Wales was at the centre of the greatest drugs bust in history. The police investigation, Operation Julie, resulted in dozens of arrests and the discovery of LSD worth £100 million. A brand-new musical play from Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre explores the story from both sides of the drugs divide – the police, and the hippies who settled in Ceredigion hoping to spread their ideals in a changing world.

This summer, Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre were due to launch an ambitious co-production for audiences in Aberystwyth. Operation Julie was to be a stage play packed with music, drama and comedy, telling the extraordinary story of what happened in and around west Wales in the mid-1970s when hippies settled in the area seeking a new way of living fuelled by acid and an alternative attitude. When a chance clue is discovered following a car accident, the local constabulary works with detectives from across Britain to uncover what turns out to be the biggest stash of acid ever found, taking out up to 60% of the world’s LSD market at that time.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck it became clear it would be impossible to open Operation Julie to live audiences at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in August and na nÓg and the arts centre made the decision to postpone its premiere until next spring.

Although a huge disappointment for both companies, they quickly decided to make the best of a bad situation, as Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s director Dafydd Rhys explains: “Though we’d prefer to be going into production now, that is no longer an option due to Covid – but it does allow the wonderful cast and team of creatives to get together to do some invaluable research and development work on the script, the characters and the music.”

Due to the continuing lockdown restrictions, writer-director Geinor Styles explains how they went about the R&D activity whilst being unable to physically rehearse together.

“I’m not a director that sits and pours over the script,” Styles says. “I like to get people up on their feet and moving. I believe I can solve things editorially whilst directing. This is probably the most frustrating thing and a real challenge for me because that is not possible over zoom. However there are advantages, the creatives, designers, sound, AV and lighting have been able to drop into rehearsal or listen in without having to physically be in the room. A real treat for us and them. It feels truly collaborative. Having them exclusively while still developing the script is very rare but such a real bonus.”

Geinor Styles, who has been developing the production since 2014 and believes that, due to COVID that the story has become even more relevant: “I feel as we move through this pandemic, that the story behind Kemp’s acid production and 8000 word micro doctrine, becomes more and more relevant to a planet that is being destroyed by consumerism and capitalism.”

She also feels the Operation Julie story is too important to be delayed. “I was astonished how relevant this story was to us living in a time where the climate was changing at an alarming rate,” she says. “That as a species, we needed to change our ways like the hippies of the ’60s and ’70s – their philosophy of wanting to ‘get back to the garden’. This philosophy was emphasised by our protagonist Richard Kemp, a talented scientist, who moved to Tregaron in the early '70s and created the purest form of LSD. He is the source of the whole story – without Kemp, you do not have Operation Julie.”

Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s version of events tells the story from both sides of the law, with Geinor Styles meeting and interviewing a variety of people from the area and of that time, one of the main acid dealers – Alston ‘Smiles’ Hughes, who was a key part of the LSD chain from his modest home in Llanddewi Brefi – and Lydia Jones, the daughter of the late Detective Sergeant Richie Parry, in the Zoom meetings with cast and crew.

Operation Julie is a musical play, a format favoured by the resilient and forward thinking theatre company, Greg Palmer is Operation Julie’s composer and musical director, working with actor-musicians over video call to create the score: “I’ve never rehearsed a show in this way before. My usual method is to be in the thick of things in the rehearsal room working with the actor-musicians in an organic way. This makes the cast feel part of the creative process. That immediacy is impossible to replicate via Zoom so the whole process becomes slower and more laboured.” This alterantive approach, though, has allowed Palmer to discuss LSD dealer Smiles’ psychedelic musical tastes and the records that influenced him during the period of the play. “I grew up as a teenager in the ’70s and listened to a lot of the music that Smiles et al would have been listening to. Smiles has referenced a number of bands from that era – Caravan, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan. I’ve been very keen from the beginning of the process to have the sound world of the play reflect those musical trends.”

Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre are confident that this extended development time, will result in a truly memorable production when Operation Julie finally reaches the stage next year. “Operation Julie will be a popular and important theatre production,” says Dafydd Rhys. “We remain totally committed to this uniquely Welsh tale that had an impact throughout the world. It also has the added bonus that the music will be fantastic! We know the audience will be in for a treat – a really good night of quality, thought provoking and popular theatre.”

Image: 

Croeso | Welcome

Gyda'ch cefnogaeth chi, gallen neud lot mwy.

Helpwch ni i danio dychymyg cenedl

With your support, we can do more.

Help us ignite the imagination of the nation

Mae Theatr na nÓg yn elusen gorfrestredig yng Nghmru a Lloegr
(515903) ac yn gwmni cyfyngedig drwy warrant.
Theatr na nÓg is a charity registered in England and Wales
(515903) and a company limited by guarantee.

Download our app

Download our creative learning app for the classroom and home!

Download on the App storeGet it on Google play

From our blog