Trouble in Butetown at Donmar Warehouse review: an enjoyable piece of hokum

Bethan Mary-James, Rosie Ekenna, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Zephryn Taitte  (Manuel Harlan)
Bethan Mary-James, Rosie Ekenna, Rita Bernard-Shaw, Zephryn Taitte (Manuel Harlan)

An illegal guesthouse in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay docks during World War Two stands as a multicultural refuge from the racist world outside in this enjoyable piece of hokum. Welsh landlady Gwyneth (Sarah Parish) and her two half-Nigerian daughters rub along in genial rancour with Caribbean, Arab and local white sailors, until a black American GI on the run upsets things. Love blossoms and wilts, and all sorts of drama and history is played out in an improbably short time - and in an impossibly small living/dining room created by designer Peter McKintosh.

The title, the over-neat plot of Diana Nneka Atuona’s script and the overemphatic acting of Tinuke Craig’s production recall a charming postwar British B-movie. Although films of that era wouldn’t have countenanced the diversity celebrated here: which is sort of the point. The message underlying the clunky narrative is one of freedom from restriction, racial or otherwise.

Mostly, though, it’s a comedic slice of life with a thriller element tacked on. Gwyneth, who lost her husband to a U-Boat attack, could be raided any day for her lack of a guesthouse license or for the hooch distillery in her outside lav. Her guests are unreliable and often drunk. Elder daughter Connie is a beauty with a sweet voice and a penchant for men in uniform. The younger, Georgie, still a child, is exasperatingly precocious. Then renegade Yank Nate arrives, mesmerising both girls.

Bethan Mary-James and Zaqi Ismail (Manuel Harlan)
Bethan Mary-James and Zaqi Ismail (Manuel Harlan)

Parish’s Gwyneth battles through the turbulence, scowling and with cheekbones aflare, like an effigy on a ship’s prow. Rita Bernard-Shaw is a beguiling but jittery Connie, while Samuel Adewunmi is loose and indistinct as Nate. Both are making their stage debuts here, and it shows.

The frustrations of both characters are powerfully felt, though. Connie longs to escape the dowdy boarding house and her mother’s strictures, sign up as a forces entertainer, and have a good time. Nate finds that the segregation and prejudice of his native Georgia has pursued him to Wales.

Rosie Ekenna meanwhile, aged just 10, is miraculously funny in her stage debut as Georgie (she shares the part with Ellie-Mae Siame, who already has a West End run in The Drifters Girl under her belt). A wonderful bundle of thwarted adventurousness, she expresses the play’s other great question: what it means to be a hero or a villain. In the supporting roles, experienced actors mark time through the flabbier dialogue until they get a chance to shine.

Almost all the play’s inspiration seems to come from films: 1951’s Pool of London (the first British movie to have a black lead character and an interracial romance); Whistle Down the Wind; Atonement. Despite the schematic nature of the plot, Atuona springs a couple of brilliant late surprises. Craig’s production is consistently entertaining. And beneath its covering of fuzzy warmth, it reminds us how mixed British society has always been, and how recently labels like “coloured” or the N-word were bandied around.

Donmar Warehouse, to 25 March;