mon 15/07/2024

Tiger Bay, Wales Millennium Centre review - ambitious but flawed spectacle | reviews, news & interviews

Tiger Bay, Wales Millennium Centre review - ambitious but flawed spectacle

Tiger Bay, Wales Millennium Centre review - ambitious but flawed spectacle

Brand new musical builds high production on a shaky structural base

Extended ensemble numbers drag out WMC's overlong new musicalPolly Thomas

During the 19th century, Tiger Bay in Cardiff was the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution and the most multicultural area in Britain. Visit today and the only signs remaining are the odd gothic buildings that sit between Doctor Who exhibitions and Nandos.

The Wales Millennium Centre looks to remind Wales of its history with the debut of an original production, appropriately titled Tiger Bay.

Racial and class divides come to the forefront in this large-scale musical. Themba Sibeko (Dom Hartley-Harris) is a recent arrival to Tiger Bay, who just wants to work the docks and forget his past. He soon teams up with the Artful-Dodger-esque Ianto (Ruby Llewelyn/Louise Harvey) to work under the imposing eye of Seamus (Noel Sullivan), the Harbour Master. Seamus uses the racial divide to his advantage, while showing a charitable face to his fiancée Rowena (Vikki Bebb), and employer the Marquess of Bute (John Owen-Jones). Together, their stories interweave as each character looks for truth, solace and redemption.

“Inspire our nation, impress the world” – these are the ambitious aims set out by managing director Mathew Milsom. This ambition spreads across the production: a 38-strong cast; 15-piece orchestra; renowned theatre director Melly Still; completely original book and score from South African Michael Williams and Welshman Dafydd James; and a marketing campaign across Cardiff so extensive, a hermit couldn’t miss it.

Everyone involved should be applauded for their vision; it’s rare a wholly original production receives such a large-scale launch. But herein lies the problem – the fundamental flaws in plotting and execution make this fanfare seem premature.

The show is three hours long – and feels it, with the first act (which clocks in at nearly an hour and a half) spending all its time establishing who everyone is, what they want and what they’re going to do. It’s not until Act Two that anyone starts to take action, but the constant switching between plots and tone means no story gets decent space to breathe.

World premier production of Tiger BayTiger Bay wears its influences on its sleeve: the scale of Les Mis; the charm of Oliver and Annie; the romance of West Side Story; the heart of Carousel; and the culture of Paul Robeson’s The Proud Valley. The problem is that by borrowing so heavily in style, without the level of storytelling or scoring, the show appears as a pale imitation. The tonal shifts creak like the bow of a ship, with scenes jumping from revenge plot to fish-out-of-water comedy. Eventually, the plotlines converge for a finale which feels so jarring and unearned, it leaves a bitter taste.

The score also suffers from too much reverence. The imposing and exciting overture is soon replaced by standard ensemble numbers obsessed with referencing Tiger Bay. There’s also the baffling “Down the Docks”, which so blatantly copies Into the Woods, it was a surprise that no red cloaks came skipping across the stage.

However, Tiger Bay shines when it stops trying to imitate the spectacle of old Broadway. First act song "Shadowland" and the second act’s "Taste of Home" stand out; a couple of characters showing moments of genuine heartache and yearning. These scenes hint at the potential some of the stories have if some lesser plots were cut out – notably, Ianto stealing a MacGuffin crystal ball, and several songs dedicated to how two women love Seamus despite the fact he’s utterly reprehensible.

It’s a shame that the show has started so large – given more time, it could be streamlined into something special. There’s genuine potential in its stories and the cast is truly brilliant, from West End legend John Owen-Jones down to the local children of Waterboys. The set is functional but dull - a collection of grey walls and cut-outs - but the performers’ energy fills the stage with vibrant colour.

So does the show achieve its ambitions? Inspire a nation – well, it’s truly inspiring to see a theatre take such a risk to tell its nation’s story. Impress the world? With such core issues in plotting and pacing, it’ll take a lot of work before Tiger Bay leaves the docks of Cardiff.

The tonal shifts creak like the bow of a ship, with scenes jumping from revenge plot to fish-out-of-water comedy


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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