BWW Review: TIGER BAY THE MUSICAL, Wales Millennium Centre
Having also played host to The Mandela Trilogy opera and musical Only The Brave, it seems that the Wales Millennium Centre seems to be making a name for itself when it comes to mounting new productions.
In its latest venture, Tiger Bay The Musical, audiences are transported back to Cardiff in the 1900s, celebrating the heritage and events that shaped it into the city we know today, all woven together with a score by local composer Daf James and an array of Welsh talent in its cast.
The story of Tiger Bay encompasses romance, revenge, heartbreak and hope. We follow a young woman in search of her place in the world; the trials of the 'Donkeymen' - who work Bute Docks transporting coal - fighting to improve their economic situation; African immigrants, including Themba, in search of a new life; the Third Marquess of Bute, who is haunted by his past; and a troupe of 'Water Boys', led by spirited Ianto, whose actions tie everything and everyone else together.
As such, Tiger Bay feels like a sweeping epic in terms of storytelling, and on one level its ambition is something to be commended: a cast of 40 adults and children bring this story to life with tremendous energy and commitment.
Daf James's score is something of a chameleon. It features a mixture of traditional-style and Welsh music blended with some African influences that at times feels jarring as it rapidly switches from one style of music to the other, but the combination is actually a clever storytelling device: highlighting the racial tension between the immigrants and the local workers.
The Water Boys have a charming first act number, "Every Donkeyman", that the children throw themselves into wholeheartedly, and it's impossible not to be swept away by the warmth and humour throughout the piece as a whole.
Having such a large ensemble cast and some weighty themes at play can present issues though, and there are occasions where the sheer scope of Tiger Bay feels overwhelming. The running time is approximately three hours, and while it clips along at a neat pace, it is relentless in terms of sheer number of people onstage at any one time and action unfolding.
There are some quiet and gentler moments, such as John Owen Jones's spine-tingling ballad of longing "Mary", and a duet between Themba (Dom Hartley- Harris) and Rowena (Vikki Bebb) called "Taste of Home" that you just wish had longer to breathe and shape the narrative before you plunge headlong back into the action.
The number of songs is also an impressive feat, with 30 packed in, but perhaps one or two don't need to be there, as the story might flow better. But though certain songs feature shades of other musicals and composers (Sondheim, Oliver! and Les Miserables came to mind), the melodies are sweeping and poignant, and Michael Williams's lyrics boast a blend of warmth and wit.
Anna Fleishle's design is a set of looming metallic walls, the centrepiece of which reminiscent of the bow of a ship, also doubling as a room above for the Marquis. In a musical celebrating Cardiff's heritage and a vibrant, bustling community, it longs for more colour and personality, and it is Joshua Carr's haunting lighting that gives us more of a sense of atmosphere.
For its faults, though, this does not take away from the fact that Tiger Bay features some brilliant performances. John Owen Jones gives us a wonderfully tender and vulnerable turn as the Marquis, his effortless vocals giving the character just the right amount of light and shade.
Vikki Bebb's Rowena is charming and likeable, and it's a joy to watch her character develop into a feisty young woman who more than holds her own against the sleazy charm of Noel Sullivan's Seamus O Rourke.
There is strong support as well from Suzanne Packer as Marisha and Busisiwe Ngejane as Klondike Ellie, but it is arguably Dom Hartley-Harris's gritty, wonderfully rich-voiced Themba that's the emotional soul of the piece.
Moving, meaningful and bursting with local charm, one cannot fault Tiger Bay's vision and the power and resonance of its central themes, even if it doesn't always quite reach the dizzying heights it strives for.
Photo Credit: Polly Thomas