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Tiger Bay the Musical review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘a relentless tide of cliche’

The cast of Tiger Bay the Musical at Wales Millennium Centre. Photo: Polly Thomas
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Ever since the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered the original (and still running) English-language version of Les Miserables in 1985, theatres have chased the holy grail of creating a hit musical.

Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre has itself previously partnered on Only the Brave and the Mandela Trilogy opera, both in 2016. It is now trying again to fill its vast auditorium with a new but chaotically ill-structured new musical.

Tiger Bay doesn’t lack for ambition or local resonance, revolving around real-life events that once played out on the streets and at the docks near the WMC itself. Here, we meet the troubled Marquess of Bute, desperately trying to find his long-missing young son; coal men determined to improve their economic lot; a foreman with a dark past; African immigrants competing with and undermining the local labour; a whole pack of street urchins with smudged faces; and all manner of good intentions and bad ballads.

It’s every musical theatre cliche rolled on to one stage, like a portentous cross between Les Mis and The Secret Garden, with a generous helping on the side of Oliver!.

It is also at times reminiscent of the 2005 National Theatre stage version of Coram Boy. This is perhaps not surprising – like that production, Tiger Bay is directed by Melly Still and puts abandoned children and their philanthropic rescue at its centre.

Still co-directs with Max Barton, and in a programme note they say: “Nothing can quite match the feeling of making a musical on the very streets that its characters walk down.” It’s odd, then, that the result feels so generic.

The closest the show comes to owning any sense of location is in the looming but ugly metallic walled design by Anna Fleischle, the centrepiece of which is what looks like the hull of a ship or a piece of the exterior of the Millennium Centre itself. Originally developed with Cape Town Opera earlier this year, some incongruous African influences remain in puzzling dance routines that echo South African mine dances.

Composer Daf James and co-writer Michael Williams (book, lyrics and music) pack it all with more than 30 musical numbers, with a surfeit of standard-issue, over-amplified, over-projected ballads, though one number, Taste of Home, for which the orchestra mercifully retreats and we’re left with a solo piano accompaniment, is all the more effective for being stripped back.

A sprawling cast of nearly 40 adult and child actors try to wrestle some integrity out of the relentless tide of cliche, and in the circumstances, John Owen-Jones (who is no stranger to big, showy tunes as a long-time star of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis) brings that unrivalled tenor home to Wales as a returning hero.

There are strong voices throughout, particularly Vikki Bebb, Dom Hartley-Harris, Suzanne Packer and Noel Sullivan in other principal roles, but all are floored in the end by a story that keeps each of them simultaneously underdeveloped and over-ripe.

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Overambitious new musical that attempts for local resonance but finds generic cliche