Tuesday 7 March 2023

Theatre review: Trouble in Butetown

If you wanted to prove that multiculturalism is, rather than a recent fad being imposed on Britain, a major part of its history and a source of pride compared to other countries, playwright Diana Nneka Atuona suggests there are worse places to look than Tiger Bay (as the area's most famous daughter is Shirley Bassey, it's hard to argue with.) The Welsh port's status as a gateway to the world has seen sailors from around the world settle down with locals since the 19th century, and when we meet widow Gwyneth (Sarah Parish) in the 1940s her home is a microcosm of this diversity: She and mixed-race daughters Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) and Georgie (Ellie-Mae Siame, alternating with Rosie Ekenna) have been running the house as an unlicensed guesthouse. Their current guests are fiercely protective local Patsy (Ifan Huw Dafydd,) Norman (Zephryn Taitte) who's just missed his ship because of a hangover, and Dullah (Zaqi Ismail,) who's in love with Peggy (Bethan Mary-James) but can't afford to marry her, and may have to agree to an arranged marriage the next time he sails out.

The Second World War has meant that as well as the commercial ships the area is also hosting a number of US military camps. These are segregated and black troops in particular are banned from Tiger Bay, in case they see the town functioning perfectly well with everyone living together and get ideas.

Gwyneth is currently trying to supplement their income with (disastrous) attempts to make homemade booze to sell to local pubs, so there's any number of reasons she doesn't want too much attention on her illegal guesthouse. But when GI Nate (Samuel Adewunmi) goes AWOL, and there's a brutal display of how his own army will treat a black soldier who steps out of line, she agrees to let him hide there for the night when she discovers him in her garden (he'll pay his board by sharing his knowledge of how to make moonshine that doesn't make you go blind.)

Trouble in Butetown is dealing with some huge issues, particularly of course those that contrast the way America's segregation-era (and beyond) treatment of its own black citizens with the way this part of Wales has become a haven not just for multiple races and nationalities, but also people like Gwyneth who've been disowned by their families for loving them. There's also a thriller underscoring the story as, when local detective Hughes (Gareth Kennerley) and US military police officer Reid (Nathan Nolan) arrive in search of Nate, it's inevitably revealed that their new guest hasn't quite given them the whole picture.

But whether it's the central story or the undeniable political themes, the strength of Tinuke Craig's production is in how gently it plays its hand. Although there's inevitable friction and tension between both family members and guests, the initial scenes' overwhelming impression is of warmth and extended family, as Connie entertains the guests by singing to them (to her mother's furious disapproval, she wants to join up to tour and entertain the troops.) And this warmth stays present even as the story gets darker and more sinister.

It feels like a shame that Michael Longhurst has announced his departure from the Donald and Margot Warehouse in the middle of what, between this and Watch on the Rhine, has been a strong start to the year for the venue. If I have a criticism of Atuona's writing it's that a couple of red herrings are introduced a bit too late and a bit too clumsily, but that's pretty much all the fault I can find with a play that makes its points gently but undeniably, never failing to entertain and involve along the way.

Trouble in Butetown by Diana Nneka Atuona is booking until the 25th of March at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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