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FringeReview UK 2023

Trouble in Butetown

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Costume, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Trouble in Butetown deserves many revivals. It’s a theatrical gem

Directed by Tinuke Craig, Set & Costume Designer Peter McKintosh, Lighting Designer Oliver Fenwick, Sound Designer Emma Laxton, Composer Clement Ishmael, Movement Director Ingrid McKinnon, Fight  Director Kev McCurdy, Casting Anna Cooper CDG.

Production Manager Jim Leaver, Costumer Supervisor Fiona Parker, Props Supervisor Propworks, Assistant Props Supervisor Kate Dowling, Voice and Dialect Coaches Khaled Abunaama, Mary Howland, Kara Tsiaperas, Claudette Williams, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Supervisor Carole Hancock, Resident Assistant Director Adam Karim, Assistant Set & Costume Designer Phyllys Egherevra, Assistant Lighting Designer Carey Chomsoonthorn, Assistant Sound Designer Elliot Popeau-George.

Assistant to Director Kate Unsworth-Murray, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Assistants Keisha Banya, Sharon Pearson.

CSM Joe Gale, DSM Monica Trabucchi, ASM Rasa (Roo) Daya, SM Intern Katherine Wallace, Chaperones Louise Groves, Russell Muir, Julia Phelan, Helen Phelan

Till March 25th


Butetown, Cardiff late February 1943. Fugitive GI Nate (Samuel Adewunmi) crashes into a child Georgina (Ellie-Mae Siame on this occasion) and despite secrecy is discovered to her diverse family. Diana Nneka Atuona’s Trouble in Butetown – directed by Tinuke Craig premiered at the Donmar – is an original play on how a social microcosm, a community with values far in advance of its time, takes on reactionary forces outside it.

Nate can’t believe Butetown’s diversity, all living – family and guests – in the illegal guest-house of Georgina’s mother, widow-in-denial Gwynneth (Sarah Parish). It’s a place we know more widely as Tiger Bay. It’s not like that where he comes from: Athens, North Georgia. As Nate says later on to Gwynneth’s older daughter Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) who wants to see the world: “But you already got it. Right here on your front porch.”

The ten-strong cast celebrates this. In addition to Gwynneth from the Valleys, disowned 20 years ago for marrying a Black man from Butetown, there’s her bi-racial daughters, her brother-in-law seaman and radically-aware Norman (Zephryn Taitte), retired all-knowing seaman Patsy (Ifan Huw Dafydd), guest Dullah (Zaqi Ismael) and his girlfriend Peggy (Bethan Mary-James). When the reason for Nate’s flight becomes clearer, and police with US Snowdrops come searching, there’s less harmony. Patsy, initially hostile to Nate’s trouble; Dullah seeking justice against racist prejudgement; Norman denying there is any justice.

Peter McKintosh’s single set features a comfy snug parlour with fireplace, rugs, chairs, poteen and piano (played by Taitte, with Emma Laxton’s additional sound, like the radio) as Bernard-Shaw sings atmospheric echt-wartime melodies newly-composed by Clement Ishmael: Connie wants to be an entertainer: still better, join up. Above there’s a gallery of lattice-work suggesting other locations, not used – with great effect – till the second act. It’s where the world of snug artificial light is broken into by the dark, in Oliver Fenwick’s deft work, sneaking a cheeky spotlight on Connie, which is what she wants.

Parish radiates authority that doesn’t always sit easily with either Patsy when Nate seems to endanger them; nor Connie, a 17-year-old desperate to get away from what she feels as her mother’s over-proscriptive curfews. Bernard-Shaw first sings like an angel then bristles like a teen, but playing always if Connie has a strong compass. Both convey the rapid improvisations required to save Nat, sometimes from himself. Dafydd’s Patsy is all initial warmth, indeed deference, till confronted with what he sees as danger for this fragile union, indeed community. But Dafydd also shows how rapidly his natural warmth overcomes this, supervising a dodgy arm-wrestle between Nate and Norman, then going well beyond.  It’s a layered, characterful performance. Taitte’s chancy happy-go-lucky Norman, who misses his boat but not later on a brilliant solution, is the most mercurial and unpredictable character on stage: perhaps apart from Siame who in a wonderfully assured debut, springs a surprise of her own.

Mary-James, as early-20s Peggy is both worldlier than Connie (earning Norman’s remarks) and more vulnerable.  Her relationship with Ismael’s Dullah is both long-standing yet uncertain, and see-saws in the brief timespan of the play. Ismael’s rectitude as Dullah – and as Norman remarks, holding the Koran in one hand and a pint in the other – is compromised too by that very two-way pull. The couple’s dilemma is a miniature play in itself. There’s some beautifully restrained scenes too between Bernard-Shaw and Adewunmi. Whilst Bernard-Shaw unwinds her dreams and a few desires, we’ve seen Adewunmi move from fright to wonderment, enjoyment, attraction and finally facing up to what he feels might be death. Even there though he’s underestimated the people he’s fallen in with. Both Adewunmi and Bernard-Shaw make enormous impressions in their professional debuts.

As the second half crashes off with Detective Hughes (Gareth Kennerley, navigating a tightrope of decency and US imperatives) and U.S. Officer Reid (Nathan Nolan, adamantine and seething with revenge) the tempo gathers, slowly at first, then with hectic brilliance some might find too much (not this reviewer). The thrilling climax, which has some textual changes and a cut, happens so fast though it’s difficult to register all that’s happened. It just needs clearer signposting.

Quite clearly a play for now as it reveals how 80 years ago we should have been celebrating the same things, Trouble in Butetown deserves many revivals. It’s a theatrical gem; anything Atuona writes now should be sought out.