Rather fittingly, my first ever visit to the magnificent feat of civil engineering that is Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre was for new musical Tiger Bay (Y Sioe Gerdd). And not just any musical, one based in and on the very area where it is playing, the docklands of Tiger Bay at the turn of the century, when the industrial revolution sent shudders through every level of society. Socio-political unrest not being known for getting the crowds in though, book-writer Michael Williams has fashioned a multi-stranded narrative with truly epic ambitions.
So there’s coal men fighting to improve working conditions, African immigrant labour complicating the picture by undercutting them, racism emerging as an ugly thorn, child labour being abused, suffragettes agitating for the vote, and the richest man in the world (the Third Marquess of Bute) who has turned to crystal balls to try and find his missing son. What emerges is a prototype vision for a multicultural society in all its myriad complexities and inequalities, connected in an all-too-human way by circumstance and some stonking great choruses.
Aiming for the epic, Tiger Bay certainly succeeds in terms of its scale. Director Melly Still fills her stage with a cast of nearly 40 and Anna Fleischle’s looming industrial design, whilst a 15-piece orchestra led by David Mahoney fleshes out Daf James’ bold score. Musically, it wears its influences proudly as well it might – original musicals have their work cut out for them well before they approach the levels of musical innovation of, say, London Road, and there’s something about the familiarity here that works on an innately comforting level, as earworms drill into the brain.
Surprises are sprinkled through though, offering texture and contrast – the female harmonies of the shopgirls, the African and Arabic influences that occasionally break free of the melting pot (aided here by Melody Squire’s choreography). Dom Hartley-Harris’ South African widower Themba is a triumphant leading man and his duet with Vikki Bebb’s kindly Rowena, ‘Taste of Home’, is a real highlight as a relationship starts to grow between them. Naturally she’s engaged to someone else, Noel Sullivan’s villainous O’Rourke, who is in turn still taken by Busisiwe Ngejane’s lady of the night Klondike.
The power in Sullivan’s voice is best served in the numerous polyphonic numbers, when the full company unites to great effect and Ngejane stands out pretty much every time she sings, such is the character in her tone. Ruby Llewellyn’s young whippersnapper Ianto is a gift of a part for such a talented youngster, Suzanne Packer delivers wonderfully as the comic relief and making a return to his native South Wales, John Owen-Jones is a striking, if slightly under-used, presence as the Marquess, his expansive tenor always thrilling to listen to.
As it comes precariously close to reaching a third hour, there’s no doubting that Tiger Bay needs a keen edit though. At over 30 musical numbers, the score is a tad over-stuffed but narratively too, there’s work that could usefully be done. To tighten up the storytelling but also to completely excise some of the less involving subplots to allow more room for emotional engagement with the key characters and let the more of the plot breathe (I’m still not entirely clear how the labourers’ issues got sorted out).
That said, chatting to audience members around me at the interval and at the end, I really got a sense of how much they appreciated the ‘localness’ of the show, pointing out some of the references I hadn’t got, filling in the gaps in my knowledge about Bute and his father – it is things like that that make me appreciate seeing shows with proper audiences rather than the artificiality of a press night crowd. It also got me to thinking how James and Williams have been rather canny with the writing of Tiger Bay, balancing local colour and just enough detail with a larger universality that will serve it well (after some editing), should the show to gain further life outwith this relatively short run.
Running time: 2 hours 47 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Polly Thomas
Booking until 25th November