Theatre in Wales

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Exhilaratingly Magnificent

At Wales Millennium Centre

Tiger Bay , Wales Millennium Centre , November 16, 2017
At Wales Millennium Centre by Tiger Bay “Tiger Bay”, says Graeme Farrow, WMC's artistic leader, “is how musicals used to be.” By that he means it is neither borrowed from a film script nor a catalogue of old hits. It is an original book by Michael Williams set to the music of Daf James. In fact its resemblance to any specific piece in the musical theatre canon is slight. It is closer dramatically to the theatre of a writer like Helen Edmundson. Like her “Coram Boy” its plot involves adults and children in an intensely realised panorama of historical setting.

The plot is gradual in its starting. Instead Williams' structure unveils a series of tableaus from the richness of the Cardiff of 1900. On the quay-front the muscles of men tauten as they push their laden wagons of coal. The cluster of raggedy street orphans, the Water Boys, assist with their greasing of the wagon wheels. Anna Fleischle's set is of stressed steel with Joshua Carr's lighting the shade of anthracite. In uptown Cardiff Vikki Bebb's heroine Rowena is in Morgan's pristine department store with fellow saleswomen Zoe George, Lucy Elson and Elin Llwyd.

Back in Butetown Suzanne Packer's Marisha presides over the unique multi-ethnic mix that shifted the black stuff which fuelled the Empire. The black-suited merchants in the Exchange strike their trades while union strife is fulminating. Suffragettes stride the stage demanding enfranchisement. These scenes have a scale and a vivacity to them to thrill. Melody Squire and Lungelo Ngamlana are joint choreographers. Director Melly Still and co-director Max Barton know exactly what they are doing; cut just at the point when the audience is at its height of enthrallment.

The Wales Millennium Centre is a big assertion of a building and “Tiger Bay” has been conceived on a scale to match. At curtain call forty actors are on stage and at times the sheer size and impact of the collective singing take it closer to opera than musical theatre. It is a sign of the producers' ambition to include so many young performers. At this performance Louise Harvey, all of ten years old, leads with a brimming assurance. She alternates with Ruby Llewellyn. But the names of their co-performers are evidence that the spirit of place pervades the production. Their names are Amaree Ali, Amelia Jenkins, Cadi-Gwen Sandall, Efan Williams, Lauren Price, Lefi Jô Hughes, Lowri Elin Hughes, Mallers Saltus-Hendrickson, Mimi Nanud, Barry Shakira Lorenza. Their homes are in Butetown, Whitchurch, Rhiwbina, Canton, Caerphilly.

Michael Williams, as well as leading Cape Town Opera, is also a novelist. “Writing a novel you have the liberty of length” he says “a musical is all about respecting brevity.” That said he has sewn together a complex multi-stranded plot to bind the great ensemble scenes. “It's a big story and that's what the Centre wants” were Graeme Farrow's words on first sight of the idea.

Remote from the seething city John Owen-Jones is an agonised Third Marquess of Bute in the Zodiac Room of Cardiff Castle. His grief over his lost family is inconsolable, his recourse the lure of spiritualism represented by Liz May Brice's medium Leonora Piper. Her fakery is assisted by Harbourmaster Seamus O'Rourke. Michael Williams knows a good script is powered by a villain of dimension and Noel Sullivan's O'Rourke is the real thing. He has a secret behind him- given the period is that of the Boer War it is easily guessable. His nemesis is newly arrived worker from South Africa, Dom Hartley-Harris' Themba.

The plot is multi-layered. There is Themba's revenge. O'Rourke is involved with Busisiwe Ngejane's magnificently voiced Klondike Ellie while engaged to Rowena. Racial violence is being fomented over scabs and strikers. The street boys meanwhile are being rounded up for incarceration in a punitive reform school in a vessel stranded in the mud. In truth Bute's conversion into a rescuing angel stretches credibility and Thembe's nobility of soul is too great to allow him to plunge in the knife. Villain is allowed to simply withdraw with a blooded nose. But these are tiddly quibbles in a grand conception.

As for Daf James he has over the years been proven as the most protean talent of his generation. In a exceptionally well-produced programme he describes his music for “Tiger Bay”, African folk style A Capella, the Djembe drum, the four-point harmony of chapels. It is as richly variegated as the company that performs it.

“Tiger Bay” is conceived as popular musical theatre. It is not social realism. There is not a profanity to be heard. It does not represent the ethnic heritage of the area; Luvo Rasemeni stands in for all the Yemenis. But what it does do is capture a society in all its turbulence at its economic peak- the Admiralty's decision to convert to oil was just a decade away. And it does it with a tempestuous vitality that is absolutely under the control of its makers across music, direction, choreography, playing. It is exhilarating. The instincts of Graeme Farrow and his Chair, who spoke before the performance, are quite correct. Wales is in need of a big show on this scale to call its own. At this third performance the audience erupted.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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