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‘Trouble in Butetown’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Trouble in Butetown, Donmar Warehouse, 2023
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Diana Nneka Atouna’s gentle wartime thriller offers a snapshot of a diverse ’40s Cardiff

Peckham playwright Diana Nneka Atuona’s new drama is entirely set in the living room of an unlicensed Cardiff boarding house in 1944. But she doesn’t have to take us on a grand tour of the city to make some points about the diversity of the Welsh capital and its vibrant Tiger Bay district. Inhabited by white owner Gwyneth (Sarah Parish), and her brother Patsy (Ifan Huw Dafydd), her two mixed-race daughters, plus long-term boarders from the Middle East (Zaqi Ismail’s Dullah) and the Caribbean (Zephyryn Taitte’s Norman), the house feels like a pointed rejoinder to both the whiteness of the British wartime drama genre and the general tendency to view Wales – and indeed pre-Windrush Britain – as a racially homogenous country (it was only a few months ago that a BBC interviewer essentially accused Black Welsh actor Rakie Ayola of being ‘woke’ for existing).

One man definitely impressed by Tiger Bay’s diversity is Black GI Nate (Samuel Adewumni). Prior to being conscripted and shipped out to a segregated American barracks nearby, he’d never left Georgia and its colour bar. He marvels at the household and white Gwyneth’s kids with a Black father – almost unthinkable back home.

Unfortunately he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to marvel: he is clearly on the run from his own military police. Gwyneth is suspicious, to say the least. But she eventually gives him a chance to at least catch a breather, turning away the coppers when they come knocking.

Despite the thrillerish elements of the plot, Atuona’s drama is a gently-paced affair that luxuriates in its intensely likeable cast of characters: there are particularly good turns from Taitte as loveable but provocative Norman and Rosie Ekenna as Gwynneth’s sweet, eccentric younger daughter Georgie (she alternates the role with Ellie-Mae Sieme). 

Much as the drama might challenge stereotypes of ‘40s Britain, Atuona never pretends her household is anything less than fragile. Much of the tension of Tinuke Craig’s production comes from the sense that these people can’t stay together forever, that something is going to tear them apart, be that long-simmering tensions between Gwyneth and her free-spirited elder daughter Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw), Norman and Dullah’s transient lives as sailors, or the big money reward being offered for Nate’s capture.

The basic problem with ‘Trouble in Butetown’ is that it’s essentially reclaiming a pretty MOR genre of writing. Its ambling plot is only moved on by some pretty hackneyed shoves forward, and it’s hard not to see it as essentially overshadowed by its influences: it’s a little bit Chekhov, a little bit Priestley, but never committed enough to either melancholic naturalism or botboiler-ish thrills to nail either approach. 

There’s the frustrating sense, I think, that there’s a bit more potential to ‘Trouble in Butetown’ than we actually get, that there’s a fresher style of play in there somewhere. But if it lacks a bit of bite, it’s a pleasurable couple of hours of theatre, with characters we end up feeling deeply for.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£10-£55. Runs 2hr 15min
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