A co-production between Wales Millennium Centre and Cape Town opera, Michael Williams Tiger Bay received its official world premiere in Cardiff on Wednesday evening.
A musical drama of epic proportions, Williams multi layered story involves real -life characters set around the alleyways and notorious public houses of the South Wales’ Butetown docks of the early 1900s. While the poverty of the Donkeymen (men who push carts of coal) and their families collide with the supreme wealth of corrupt employers, a worker’s revolution signifying change is in the air.
Caught in the middle of the story is Morgan & Co shop worker, Rowena Pryddy, who is set to marry docks supervisor, Shamus O Rourke. Pryddy is seemingly unaware of her fiance’s poor treatment of his workers, his philandering with a woman of ill repute his deception of his superior, the third Marquess of Bute of whom he hopes to overthrow.
The arrival of South African Dock worker Themba Sibeiko not only creates ripples in Pryddy and O Rourke’s relationship but also brings to light the plight of the water boys, the homeless children that inhabit the docks and help the dockers complete their work.
At times Tiger Bay’s storyline is quite heavy, but also thorough and meticulous in its attention to historical detail. Among the subjects Tiger Bay addresses are slavery, racial prejudice and women’s rights all done with a degree of sensitivity and realism.
Daf James musical score has both an air of contemporary and classical, colliding the musical jollity of Bart’s Oliver! with the gothic overtones of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. The music also has its roots in classical Welsh song as well as South African roots, both of which add authenticity to various scenes.
The set itself is simplistic but seemingly adaptable as characters transfer from the train shunting docks to the grandeur of Morgan &Co Department Store to the dimly lit seediness of a public house.
Bringing the show to life is a powerful ensemble cast. Not one member on stage stands idle for a moment, be they a Donkeyman shunting a cart of coal, a water boy keeping time in the rigours of dock work or a shop worker attempting to dress an uncooperative mannequin.
John Owen Jones is ideally cast as the Third Marquess of Bute, a character which appears to be insular and clearly troubled at first. As the story unfold, Jones gets some wonderful moments both as an actor and a singer allowing him to demonstrate a rich pallet of emotion. The second half also sees him perform one of the show’s most memorable songs the catchy Little Things, a duet with Louise Harvey which also injects some lightness into the proceedings.
Noel Sullivan’s plays Seamus o Rourke, a classic male villain, with great conviction. His display of wickedness and charm combined with the qualities of a liar, cheat and philanderer undoubtedly made this role a hit with the audience judging by Sullivan’s reception at the end.
Vikki Bebb gives a delightfully feisty portrayal of Rowena, a character whose awareness and confidence grow as the events of the story unfold. Her connection with the hero of the piece, Themba Sibelko is delightful and at times comical, particularly her commandeering of bicycle in the second half as well as Themba! Bebb also has several memorable musical moments including her solo performance on the song Who I Am.
Dom Hartley-Harris has all the quality, passion and drive that brings Themba to life on stage, his friendship with the water boys unleashes a much-needed warmth into the tense proceedings in the early part of the story and this quickly spreads to other character as the story develops.
Another stand out character is Klondike, a world-wise woman and mistress of O Rourke. Busisiwe Ngejane gives a believable and sympathetic performance of the character and adds a great depth that allows the audience to sympathise with her plight.
Special mention must also go to the young actors and actresses that play the water boys. Lead by Louise Harvey as Ianto they all give cheeky, endearing and charming performances mixing energy with tight choreography and singing.
Approximately three hours in length, Tiger Bay contains strong language in places as well as mild violence and dialogue that may be deemed offensive but appropriate to the era it portrays making it not suitable for under 11s. It runs at Wales Millennium Centre until November 25.