Posts Tagged ‘Tiger Bay’

I don’t think either the history of the Butetown area of Cardiff, or Tiger Bay as it’s also known, or the plight of black American GIs in the UK during the Second World War are particularly well known, so it’s good to see both featured in Diana Nneka Atuona’s excellent new play.

Tiger Bay was the home of Cardiff docks, once the largest in the world, sending coal from the South Wales valleys to virtually every corner of the planet. It was one of the first places to receive immigrants to the UK and with much inter-racial marriage soon became a melting pot. The play is set during the war in the unofficial boarding house of Gwyneth, where she lives with her young mixed race daughters Connie & Georgie. Her Nigerian husband is at sea it seems. Her current guests include local merchant sailor Patsy, West Indian Norman and Dullah, a muslim from the Muddle East or Asian sub-continent. Dullah’s girlfriend, local ‘coloured’ girl Peggy is a frequent visitor.

‘Coloured’ GIs are confined to their barracks in nearby Maindy, but there has been an incident where a white officer has been murdered and two ‘coloured’ soldiers are on the run. Unbeknown to the other, one has been killed. His friend Nate is hiding out in the boarding house’s back yard. After being found by Gwyneth’s youngest daughter Georgie, he is taken in and welcomed, shocked at the existence of, and being accepted in, an unsegregated place like this. They don’t initially know what he’s running from but they get caught up in his predicament.

There’s a really authentic sense of location and period in Tinuke Craig’s production, with an excellent design by Peter McKintosh including a lot of period detail. The first part is a touch slow, largely because there’s so much background to cover, but I was content absorbing the atmosphere of the period and the place. The faithful local accents (I was brought up 12 miles away) added to the authenticity (some actors, like Bethan-Mary James, are clearly from the area).

It’s really well performed, with a cast led by Sarah Parish as Welsh matriarch Gwyneth who’s come here from the valleys, a pitch perfect performance. There are hugely impressive professional stage debuts by Rita Bernard-Shaw as Connie and Samuel Adewunmi as Nate, and on the night I went, another auspicious stage debut by Rosie Ekenna as young Georgie.

As if to illustrate my little known history point, in the interval the American gentleman sitting next to me asked why the British wouldn’t allow the GIs to mix with the local community. Little known over there as well as over here it seems.

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If the nickname ‘The Welsh Les Mis’ hadn’t already been taken by My Land’s Shore (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/my-lands-shore), soon to have its Welsh stage premiere (www.mylandsshoremusical.com), it might be applied to this, though it’s more Les-Mis-meets-Oliver! Whilst half of Wales seemed to be watching rugby at the Millennium Stadium, the other half seemed packed into the Wales Millennium Centre last Saturday afternoon. We travelled from London and the journey was rewarded; there’s much to enjoy here.

It’s set in Cardiff docks at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the busiest port in the world, exporting coal to fuel industry worldwide, run by the world’s richest man, the Marquess of Bute, who lives in Cardiff Castle. It’s a backdrop of child labour, prostitution, the birth of trade unions and suffragettes in one of the world’s first melting pots, nicknamed Tiger Bay by Portuguese sailors. There are several story strands against this backdrop. The Marquess is obsessed with finding his former mistress Mary, who he believes has a son by him. His harbour-master is pursuing shop girl Rowena, but he’s also feeding his boss’ obsession and exploiting the workers and children. African labourer Temba is also attracted to Rowena, and he has a score to settle with O’Rourke.

It’s a blend of fact and fiction, and Michael Williams’ book needs some work to tighten it and shorten it, but it’s a good story for a musical drama. Though Daf James’ score sometimes seems derivative (you can hear echoes of Les Mis, even Sondheim’s Into the Woods) it has some cracking tunes and rousing choruses and we’re in Wales, so the singing is glorious. The producers, writers and directors have lots of experience, but not so much in musical theatre, and I felt they could have done with some help from someone who had, to turn a good show into a great one.

I loved Anna Fleischle’s design, dominated by a ship’s prow with similar metallic screens that move to create different settings, shadows created by Joshua Carr’s lighting often playing on them atmospherically. Melly Still & Max Barton marshal their cast of over 40 very well, though I felt dance was over-used, sometimes inappropriately or incongruously.

John Owen-Jones is a commanding presence as the Marquess, but the part wasn’t really big enough for his talents. Noel Sullivan was hugely impressive as harbour-master O’Rourke, as was recent RWCMD graduate Vikki Bebb as Rowena, both with superb vocals. Dom Hartley-Harris gave a passionate performance as Temba and local girl Suzanne Packer was terrific as Marisha. The show is a co-production with Cape Town Opera in their ongoing partnership with WMC and Busisiwe Ngejane and Luvo Rasemeni as Klondike Ellie and Fezile respectively, both veterans of the wonderful Isango Ensemle, continue in the roles they created in the Cape Town premiere.

Well worth the trip to Wales!

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