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Trouble in Butetown at Donmar Warehouse | Review

Trouble in Butetown premiered at the Donmar Warehouse this week, it’s the latest writing from award-winning playwright Nneka Atuona directed by Tinuke Craig.

Sarah Parish in TROUBLE IN BUTETOWN - Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan.
Sarah Parish in TROUBLE IN BUTETOWN – Donmar Warehouse – photo by Manuel Harlan.

The first thing that struck me when I entered the auditorium is that the set design is completely naturalistic. I’ve not been to a piece of naturalism theatre for a number of years.

The performance space is a thrust stage, and the audience cages in the action from three sides of the performance space.

The action finds us in Butetown; a multi-cultural port town, aka Tiger Bay, in Cardiff. We are in the living quarters of Gwyneth Mbanefo’s unlicensed boarding house. There is also her yard on stage. It’s important to know this because even though I read the press release and the programme notes, it took me a good 15 minutes to work out who everyone on the stage was, how they were connected and where we were! The exposition does come through dialogue, but you must wait quite some time to identify everyone and their trajectories.

Frustratingly, the piece was quite lengthy, I was ready for an interval by the time we got to the end of the first half. The play also had songs which to me, didn’t really fit – as lovely as they were they didn’t really move the story forward and just added time to the piece which it didn’t need. In contrast to this is the jive scene – towards the end of Act 1, where Nate (Adewunmi) puts on one of Gwyneth’s (Parish) husbands’ records – is a beautiful scene where we see light in Gwyneth’s eyes as she, maybe, relaxes and laughs for the first time since her husband went missing. It provides a perfect foil for the police raid which follows.

The casting for this piece is solid – our matriarch, Gwyneth is excellently portrayed by Sarah Parish. A hard-working, full-of-integrity, mother of all, Paris plays her with heart and gumption. She has a quality that makes you want to focus on her wherever she is on the stage, be that peeling potatoes or jiving.

When Gwyneth and her daughter Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) have a heart-to-heart in the second half about why Gwyneth is so protective of her daughter my heart totally felt for this woman, I wanted to jump up on stage and give her a big hug and shout about the injustice in the world.

The on-stage dynamics between Connie (Bernard-Shaw) and Nate (Samuel Adewunmi) is lovely to watch, Connie with her naivety and blatant attraction to American GI Nate is cute, if not sometimes a little OTT. It is lovely to watch their journey progress as Connie’s desire for the unknown is explored through Nate our AWOL American GI.

The stand-out performer was Rosie Ekenna (one of the 2 child actors portraying Georgina). This girl is brilliant – she has perfect comic timing and her character really comes alive when she meets Nate.

In terms of the writing itself, I’d say it has a definite nod to the dramas of kitchen sink realism, with 21st Century dialogue and of course set in Wales rather than up North. Our characters are facing social inequality and are fighting for rights against a system that won’t change. Sadly, I learned nothing new from this piece, although I was introduced to some great stage actors that I shall keep an eye out for in the future.

3 Star Review

Review by Faye Stockley

First thing I’m a need you to do is keep my secret. can’t let nobody know I’m here and I mean nobody

In her illegal boarding house in Butetown, Cardiff, Gwyneth Mbanefo (Sarah Parish, Bancroft) toils tirelessly to keep afloat.

It’s a port town during the war; home to souls from every corner of the globe. When Nate (BIFA winner Samuel Adewunmi), an African American GI, escapes his barracks and discovers this new world without segregation, can he find safe harbour in Tiger Bay? And with danger on every corner, who can he trust?

Cast & Creatives
Samuel Adewunmi – Nate
Rita Bernard-Shaw – Connie
Ifan Huw Dafydd – Patsy
Rosie Ekenna – Georgie
Zaqi Ismail – Dullah
Gareth Kennerley – Detective Hughes
Bethan Mary-James – Peggy
Nathan Nolan – Detective Reid
Sarah Parish – Gwyneth
Ellie-Mae Siame – Georgie
Zephryn Taitte – Norman
Iman Borono – COVER DULLAH
Lisa Zahra – COVER GWYN
Diana Nneka Atuona – Writer
Tinuke Craig – Director
Peter McKintosh – Designer
Oliver Fenwick – Lighting Designer
Emma Laxton – Sound Designer
Clement Ishmael – Composer
Ingrid Mackinnon – Movement Director
Kev McCurdy – Fight Director
Casting Director Anna Cooper CDG – for the Donmar Warehouse

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  • Faye Stockley

    Faye read Theatre & Performance at The University of Warwick; she went on to work as a stage manager in London and Edinburgh. She had a year's stint on-board the MV Island Escape as a Social Host and Compere and now works full time as a Recruitment Manager for the broadcast, entertainment and media sectors.

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