Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – until 25 November 2017
The Wales Millennium Centre has come of age with its first major foray into story-telling on a truly epic scale. Tiger Bay The Musical is the most significant, largest and innovative production ever produced by WMC.
This sweeping, majestic, tour-de-force, which showcases the considerable talent found in Wales, is likely to become a modern classic, every bit as iconic as the theatre in which it is being performed. It is a remarkable and ambitious production, pulling together hard, uncompromising themes of racial prejudice, industrial unrest, poverty and child exploitation, and weaving them into a stirring saga of romance, hope, heartbreak and revenge.
Set in the early 1900s it tells the story of how Cardiff was shaped thanks to the money and influence of the world’s richest man, philanthropist and industrialist, John, the Third Marquess of Bute (John Owen-Jones).
At the other end of the social scale is the multi-racial community living and working in the city’s docklands, Tiger Bay. South African born, but of Welsh descent, playwright Michael Williams, combines fact and fiction to create a masterful narrative that tells a very human story amid a watershed moment in Welsh history.
Tiger Bay is enthralling, with an impressively powerful turn by singer Noel Sullivan and a knockout performance by newcomer Vikki Bebb (West End, here she comes). The child performers, playing waterboys and street kids, are some of the most animated I’ve seen and a vast, perfectly formed ensemble of outstanding voices and talents, complete this exhilarating, life-affirming show.
Dom Hartley-Harris superbly reflects the turmoil and desperation of turn-of-the-century African immigrants. And it’s fair to say that little Ruby Llewellyn has her musical theatre future assured with her outstanding performance as street urchin, Ianto. She captured everyone’s hearts on opening night.
You can see influences of Annie and Oliver – and Dickens’ stories of social injustice as a whole – in the story-telling. Yet, despite this being a very site-specific production, it is a saga that could travel anywhere and be met with recognition.
In fact, co-produced by South Africa’s Cape Town Opera, the show first tried out with them, to great critical acclaim, before making its UK premiere in Cardiff on Wednesday night.
Daf James’ original score, with lyrics and additional music from Williams, combines a variety of styles that reflect the melting pot that existed in the Tiger Bay area.
Refugees and sailors from all over the world poured into the docks at the turn of the century, many making their home in the area.
But their arrival also caused deep industrial unrest from native Welsh dockers who feared their livelihoods would be under threat from non-unionised and cheap, immigrant labour.
The bay had been developed by Bute (Phantom star, John Owen-Jones) but, veering wildly away from true life, the playwright gives him a tragic back story and a villainous henchman.
Harbourmaster, Seamus O’Rourke, is a pearl of a role for Noel Sullivan, who, despite carving out a substantial musical theatre career, is still best remembered as a member of the manufactured pop group, Hear’Say.
Sullivan is terrific as the duplicitous, scheming and ambitious rotter who underpays his workers, cheats on his fiance and attempts to fleece his grieving boss.
His innocent and naive girlfriend, shopgirl Rowena (Bebb), is initially overawed by his attention and refuses to believe rumours of his underhand dealings.
But the dock workers are in a rebellious mood. Led by the outspoken Arwyn Jenkins (Ian Virgo) they threaten strike action so O’Rourke lines up blackleg immigrant labour to take their place.
The production runs at more than three hours as directors Melly Still and Max Barton try to include every riveting strand of the story.
There’s Rowena’s romance, a token appearance of suffragettes to put the timing of the story into context, a newcomer’s thirst for revenge, racial tension and child abuse.
And there are also the show’s larger-than-life characters.
Dom Hartley-Harris, as widower and refugee Themba Sibeko, boiling with resentment; landlady Marisha (Casualty’s Suzanne Packer) who is always on hand with a pint of Brains’ Dark; docks’ prostitute Klondike Ellie (Busisiwe Ngejane) who is determined to land O’Rourke; and Ianto, the astute, cheeky, audacious and opportunist waterboy who survives by working every angle.
Tiger Bay is an immaculate show. The musical numbers are, of course, sung to perfection – this is Wales after all – Sullivan, Bebb and Owen-Jones gloriously powerful and intense.
Joshua Carr’s atmospheric lighting casts vast shadows to compliment Anna Fleischle’s towering industrial themes set.
With a cast of more than 40 (accompanied by musical director David Mahoney and his orchestra) the show utilises the vast WMC stage with big production numbers that take their lead from global dance styles and influences.
A world class, original and innovative musical that is spellbinding. It’s unmissable and sets the benchmark impossibly high for the theatre’s next home produced spectacular.
Tiger Bay The Musical runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until November 25.
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