Tiger Bay or How Old King Coal Found his Soul and kept the Children off the Dole. Or something like that.
I have to admit that I had harboured misgivings about whether I would enjoy this show such is my secret dread of musicals. They can range from the simply sublime to the staggeringly soporific, the meanderingly mindless to the masterfully meaningful, piously pretentious to purely populist. This new show avoids extremes and comes out as familiarly friendly family fare, despite a last-minute upping of the recommended age guidance to 11 plus. It is a traditional musical which will strike horror into the hearts of those with a disturbing need for novelty which, of course, is now the convention by definition.
This is musical theatre so please do not expect a socio-economic analysis of coal-powered industrial society in Britain as the Victorian and Edwardian age marched towards the modern world, as epitomised in the Tiger Bay by unions, suffragettes and soldiers on the edge of First World War precipice. I think we all know the Marquis of Bute wasn’t really an autocratic ruler of the mystical land of Tiger Bay, ruling from his castle, even though it was straight out of fairy tale. That was more the Crawshays of Cyfarthfa Castle but that is another opera. Similarly, we also have to take with a pinch of salt the ethnic portrait of this docklands community which smacks a little too much of Southern Africa remembering this is a show with its origins in Cape Town and first seen in the Rainbow Nation.
So while Tiger Bay may not be an evening of cutting edge political theatre, a tinse lacking in historical veracity and doesn’t strive to push the boundaries of musical theatre, it is a watermark for Wales Millennium Centre and something in which Wales should take pride. The work is ambitious, taking as its context Cardiff docklands at the turn of the 20th century with its diverse population mix, the disparity between the wealth of the coal (and shipping) owners and the workers, the rivalries between “locals” and incomers, the rise of trade unionism, the push for women’s suffrage and trying to dig into each through the aspirations, fears and hopes of all of those in this unique energy capital of the last millennium and moulding it into a tale that appeals to our contemporary sensibilities of race, culture, religion, equality and social justice.
This is musical theatre and the challenge is to craft an accessible show with music and songs, some dance as is required, and a narrative that somehow tells personal stories and captures those over-arching themes. The author’s vehicle for this may not be the most original in the world; the heartbreaking and desperate search for a missing child of an illicit liaison, children’s yearning for missing parents, an outsider with a dark secret seeking a new life, redemption achieved through the innocence of children, different tribes being brought together through a shared loss, the realisation of shared values in the face of social injustice. Yes, Oliver!, Peter Pan, Les Mis, a bit of West Side Story, and so many opera narratives. But what matters is that this is a highly entertaining show that has been created in the home of its characters, involves their descendants in this still multi-ethnic community, both on and off stage, has enough historical veracity to only make we historians wince a few times, and is a non-apologetic crowd pleaser.
The author could have turned his back on the audience and easily written yet another slice of agit prop, (updated to Thatcherite Britain no doubt). This Tiger Bay raises issues of class, racism, inequality…..but with a light touch. There is a fanciful narrative of redemption found in philanthropy; peace through love, enlightenment through sacrifice of innocents, but it is no less ridiculous than much-lauded shows about the enlightened masses taking to the barricades in the face of Tory austerity. Yeah right.
Less pleasing is that despite composer Daf James intentions of bringing a sound of Wales to his score it is not immediately apparent. Take away the Cardiff accents, local references such as Brains Dark, Morgans department store, a pantoesque mention of Newport, a Welsh hymn and the odd bit of Welsh language, the sense of Wales is much, much weaker than that of South Africa. Musically, that hymn, some fine choral work towards the end, and reference to traditional anthems (we aren’t too long after Rorke’s Drift after all), didn’t really give a distinctive Welsh edge to the show. In contrast the sounds and rhythms, even instruments of Africa such as the Djembe drum, fill our ears. Does that matter? It didn’t to the audience.
Such caveats aside you cannot fail to instantly like the music from this Welsh composer as he brings to life the book and lyrics by Cape Town Opera’s Michael Williams whose vision for this show was embraced by WMC and his own company where the work was first shown. The show has, wait for it, tunes. It has melodies you can enjoy. It has ballads and catchy songs, belt it out torch songs and clear the wax out of your ears big hitters. A little less would have been a little bit more….there are a lot of songs powering through the show and many climaxes, one after another and another. This slows in the second half where we have a contrast with the rapid sung-through narrative changing to more spoken prose. There is also a teething problem in some of the singing being overwhelmed by the volume of the orchestra and some lyrics from one or two singers that just disappear into sounds.
Anna Fleischle’s set is a vast ship in the port with a forecastle that opens to what I assume to be the zodiac room in Cardiff Castle for the scenes where Bute has taken refuge from the busy world outside. The other sets, the inside of Marisha guest house-cum-bar and David Morgan’s rather genteel department store, are created with rotating “steel” plates. The scenes in the department store work particularly well with human mannequins and the only real taste of affluent Cardiff. We also had some rushing around business types no doubt off to the Coal Exchange and protesting suffragettes (think Welsh actress Glynis Johns and her Votes for Women in Mary Poppins). Would we know what we are looking at without knowing Cardiff? Impossible to say. It all called for sharp choreography although even the large WMC stage appeared at times packed. Most of that direction was dictated by the set. Melly Still, with Max Barton as co-director, allows the narrative to sweep along, weaving between scenes, deftly balancing fun and frivolity with the darkness of the work. However, it is the darkness that should cut through the show that is most lacking. Possibly the weakest scenes are those of the children at the Havannah ship/school/workhouse – frankly, what was it and did the boys just pull ropes? This should have been the most disturbing Dickensian part of the show but it fell a little flat particularly with the humour of the gaolers neutralising the sinister.
The first half of the show also lacked any real strong writing for the female characters. They were introduced but were distinctly secondary to the three main male roles and for the character of Rowena, the Valleys-born shopgirl, distinctly on the fluffy side. We need a couple of big belters for the two central women characters to make any mark, I quipped in the interval, and these were delivered as if on cue. There also needed at least one major twist in the tale to stop the entire plot being rather obvious. This too was delivered although a few more fun alternatives had skipped across my mind.
The storyline is a black South African whose wife and child have been killed by some villain in the Boer War. (You don’t need a degree in musical theatre to work out who it turns out to be.) It would have been brave indeed to have just shifted the timelines a little and made this Zulu the now grown up survivor of the British (including Welsh) regiments that had destroyed his proud people. The Zulu Wars, including Rorke’s Drift, were only two decades before. A rendition of Men of Harlech would have a totally different meaning. We have the hardy but downtrodden workers, the donkey men, in the docks unloading coal from the mines brought down by the railways, the tracks kept clean by the waterboys, urchin children who all seem to be orphans for some reason. They are all controlled by the unscrupulous womanising harbour master Seamus O’Rourke sung and acted with huge presence by Noel Sullivan, who manages to avoid falling into the trap of being the panto villain but still elicits a few boos at the curtain call. His own power comes from manipulating the unhinged 3rd Marquess of Bute who has taken recourse to drugs and mysticism (in the form of Liz May Brice’s charlatan medium Leonora Piper) to find a boy borne by what we assume was some sort of dodgy liaison in the docklands. In the role Burry Port tenor John Owen-Jones creates a massive musical theatre presence and performs the big numbers with as much voomph as you would expect. He is no stranger to this often overblown genre as a long-time star of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis with which this show is destined to be compared. The third extremely strong voice is from the South African arrival, Themba, sung by Dom Hartley-Harris, a powerful and rich singer-actor who brings a contrasting musical resonance to the songs and ensemble passages, a heartfelt and immaculate performance.
The two key female singing roles are again completely contrasting and as such ideally encapsulate their own dramatic roles. Busisiwe Ngejane as Klondike Ellie, the prostitute who is of course really a good woman and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama musical theatre graduate Vikki Bebb as Rowena Pryddy, the at-first naive girl who sees the light and joins the forces of good to save the day. Yes, girl power arrived in Cardiff before those spicy songstresses were a glimmer in their parent’s eyes. Speaking of powerful, Suzanne Packer, of TV fame, brings both superb comic timing and down-to-earth appeal to the role of Marisha and it is good to actually hear a real Kairdiff accent.
Depending which performance you see the pivotal role of Ianto is either taken by Louise Harvey or Ruby Llewelyn. Our waterboy Ianto was Ruby Llewelyn and this is one hugely talented youngster who just has to be to make this show work. The waterboys; Amaree Ali, Lefi Jo Hughes, Lowri Hughes, Shakira Lorenza Ifill, Amelia Jenkins, Mimi Nanud, Lauren Price, Mallers Saltus-Hendrickson, Cadi Gwen Sandall and Efan Williams, bring the naughty rascal flavour of Fagin’s pickpockets and the innocence of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and, naturally, have the street sense to shine a mirror on the daft adults.
Familiarity with the story of Cardiff as the world’s largest port servicing the coal mines of the Valleys, the wealth of the Butes and the influx of workers into the docks will undoubtedly enhance your enjoyment of Tiger Bay. Too much knowledge will detract from that enjoyment as of course it has to take sweeping liberties with reality. Similarly, if you enjoy traditional, big and hearty musicals with powerful vocals, plenty of charm and humour, a tug or two on the heart-strings, this will more than satisfy. But you might just hanker for some coal, dust, filth and something, well, less tidy.
Go and enjoy a good evening’s entertainment and share in this important step in the cultural life, development and history of Cardiff’s docks and Wales.
Did I mention I am civil partnered into the Morel shipping family which helped establish Penarth as a rival port to the Bute’s Cardiff and in 1898 Sir Thomas Morel was Mayor of Cardiff, the year before S.A.Brain’s term in office? Now where’s that pint of Brain’s Dark? Just declaring an interest.