Rhiannon M. Williams, lecturer in Theatr and Drama at the University of South Wales
The trouble with reviews is that readers tend to see them as gospel, and we forget that their stars aren’t, well, actual stars. We forget that the reception of theatre is subjective and dependent on the critic’s experiences of other productions and their experiences of life in general.
Last night I went to Wales Millenium Centre to enjoy a piece of musical theatre. I didn’t want to watch as a pencil-licking judge, I wanted to absorb the performance and get lost in the moment; something which live performance – be it sport, gigs, theatre – allows you to do in a way which no other media does.
However, I have since read some reviews which have left me a little perplexed. I understand that people’s views vary. So as other people have felt fit (or have been paid) to express their opinion, then here I do the same.
Tiger Bay is an epic, ambitious and emotional production which frequently had me – and the audience around me – in tears.
Michael Williams’ narrative follows the trials and tribulations of a bustling, hard-working community as its people struggle to stay alive and discover who they are. From ensemble, to leading roles, all performers were totally committed and immersed in the performance.
Their energy was contagious. A particularly memorable performance for me was that of Dom Hartley-Harris as the newcomer Themba, his passionate yet smooth voice able to convey his inner struggles.
The children were also brilliant; confident yet heart-wrenchingly vulnerable.
Tiger Bay’s community of a hundred years ago is portrayed as busy and alive. It is fast paced; an ever-changing landscape of hardship and vibrancy.
This is reflected in the busy choreography, and in the ever-changing scenery. Anna Fleischle’s set is dominated by a castle/ship/fortress type structure which I felt was too foreboding at the beginning.
But then I realised that this could be the point; however busy the characters are, they are always dominated by something which is beyond their reach – belittling their lives, if you like (sound familiar?).
When listening to an album for the first time I can find it a little strange to digest. I want to like it and I feel that I will, but I can’t quite yet, as the songs aren’t etched in my brain and senses.
This happened to an extent with Tiger Bay, with the songs and themes being new to me.
However, Daf James’ score, sometimes echoing Welsh hyms sometimes African rhythms, has succeeded in haunting me since last night, and I find myself singing ‘Shadowland, Shadowland’, wishing I could hear the songs again.
For me, Tiger Bay could be a tad shorter, allowing the storyline to be condensed slightly (but as my father-in-law mused whilst discussing the show: people thought that Marx’ Das Capital was too long at first!).
Also, there were some quiet, tender moments, which were spine-tingling. I wonder whether a few more moments like these could have been possible, to allow the audience to reflect, and to be juxtaposed with the high tempo of the show.
Such was my enjoyment of the production that some of the comments in the (English) press were rather jarring, if not perplexing. The reviews aren’t awful, raspberry type things, by any stretch.
But they seem to include enough measured condescension to suggest to the WMC that they shouldn’t make new musicals about Wales.
One suggests that the production is “overambitious”. Welsh theatre makers; know your place! Have no ambition! Generic musicals only please!
Another, in sharp – and confusing – contrast complains about cliché. Which seems to beg the question: is being a child living in poverty a cliché? Is being underpaid a cliché?
Is not accepting other minorities to your country a cliché? They weren’t and they aren’t. All these issues are prevalent on our doorstep.
It may just be that some don’t like to see these ‘cliches’ time after time, because the more they see it, the more they must accept that this is how it is.
Other reviews have drawn similarities with Les Miserables, as if this should be viewed as an issue.
Given that it is arguably the most popular musical of all time, I’m confused as to why this should be a problem. Stories of hardship and injustice have to be told in order for us not to forget them.
They’re the stories of our past – and the lived reality of people that is happening in our present – and theatre has the responsibility to represent this.
I salute Tiger Bay for being a brilliant three-hour performance, and for sharing this story on an international stage. Wales has the right to create ambitious productions such as this; it validates our nation and helps us understand our heritage.
In the musical we see the characters trying to discover how Tiger Bay might change them, or how they might help change Tiger Bay, and unite as a community. The musical’s currency is that it asks us: how do we respond to an ever changing Wales?
Do we question our own identity, or our collective identity, whilst our nation is constanly changing?
If we endeavour, as the characters of Tiger Bay, to live harmoniously with each other and to learn from each other, instead of problematising the ethnic or geographical boundaries that separate us, then we might hope for a stronger national community.
The story of this community, ignored and under-valued for so long, deserves to be celebrated onstage: Tiger Bay does it real justice.
I loved it, others didn’t – go see for yourselves. Don’t depend on reviews!