'Trouble in Butetown' review — Tinuke Craig brings WWII Cardiff to life

Read our three-star review of the world premiere of Diana Nneka Atuona's Trouble in Butetown at the Donmar Warehouse, running through 25 March 2023.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Cardiff is having its day on the London stage just now. Fast on the heels of Gary Owen’s Romeo and Julie at the National, along comes Trouble in Butetown, a Donmar premiere from the Nigerian-British playwright Diana Nneka Atuona, whose Liberian Girl won acclaim at the Royal Court early in 2015.

The multicultural Butetown, located toward the south of the Welsh capital, is part of that city’s dockland area known as Tiger Bay and provides the setting for Atuona’s busy, bustling play. It's set in WWII at the time when American GIs stationed overseas in Britain heightened a sense of connection between the two countries — and also marked out differences, as well.

And so it is that we find ourselves in the teeming environs of the illicit guest house run by Gwyneth (a commanding Sarah Parish), whose ramshackle accommodation has been designed to within an inch of its immensely detailed life by Peter McKintosh, who, between this and the recent West End entry Orlando, has had a notably impressive run of late.

You could spend the interval marvelling at the profusion of flags and photos adorning the set, not to mention the pulleys visible above the playing area that suggest the dock life not far from Gwyneth’s active front door.

Gwyneth had a Nigerian husband now gone from view: the relationship caused consternation in its day and has resulted in two mixed-race daughters whom we first encounter on the cusp of St David’s Day. Her parlour is alive to a boisterous assemblage of folk that includes a retired seaman, nicknamed Patsy, who walks with a limp, and the nationalist-minded Norman (Zephryn Taitte), prone to rhetorical grandstanding. The booze flows, albeit without a license, and intrigue of various kinds hangs in the air.

At the performance caught, Russell Anthony substituted ably for Ifan Huw Dafydd, as Patsy, and the director Tinuke Craig brings to this text the same gift for catching the unpredictable rhythms of life caught on the wing that distinguished her Old Vic revival last summer of the August Wilson play, Jitney.

Plays often rely upon an outsider, and this one offers a visiting American serviceman, Nate (Samuel Adewunmi), who arrives in Wales on the run from Georgia, the authorities fast on his heels to whisk him away. Adewunmi joins Rita Bernard-Shaw as Connie, the older of Gwyneth’s two daughters, among a pair of actors here making their professional stage debuts, and both performers do very well, the charismatic Bernard-Shaw especially so.

Rather like its immediate predecessor at this address, Lillian Hellman’s wartime play Watch on the Rhine, Trouble in Butetown brings matters to a climactic boil embedded in this instance by Atuona’s title. There’s a whiff of melodrama as the play moves towards its literal cliff-hanger of an ending, and the presence of Connie’s younger sister, Georgie, would amount to more if the sweet child performer in the role were more audible; even in the third row, I wasn’t always sure what was being said.

Will Nate be turned in, or Gwyneth prosecuted, and who will end up with whom? (The retinue on view extends to Zaqi Ismail’s Dullah, a Muslim sailor with a particular fondness for drink.) The play bubbles along, ceding centre stage to its various characters in turn, and using the lip of the Donmar playing area to bring events very nearly into the audience’s actual laps.

The production feels like a passion project for all involved, borne out in a spontaneous ovation at the curtain call that seemed to move players and playgoers alike.

You could imagine the same material teased out into a miniseries, or even a novel, and one wonders whether the complexities of race at that time and place weren’t greater than the play allows. Still, for a show coursing with music — Clement Ishmael is the expert composer — the production keeps the timing one might expect from a finely tuned orchestra. You might want to adjust the tonal balance here and there, but Trouble in Butetown is a pleasure to hear throughout.

Trouble in Butetown is at the Donmar Warehouse through 25 March. Book Trouble in Butetown tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Bethan Mary-James, Sarah Parish, Ifan Huw Dafydd, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Samuel Adewunmi, Zephryn Taitte, Ellie-Mae Siame (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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