Playwright Diana Nneka Atuona has crafted a story of love, loss, family and race, and yet we leave the theatre feeling as though, while so much has happened, nothing has really changed or developed.
The play charts the story of the American GI Nate (Samuel Adewunmi) and his interaction with a makeshift family comprising of a mother and her two daughters, one old, one young, and seamen, lovingly called “uncles.” Through their relationships the nature of race-relations in and between the US and UK are illuminated. Amongst these moments are the kernels of connections and instances of Connie (Rita Bernard-Shaw) singing, which despite being slightly forced is quite charming. The fledgling romances between Connie and Nate, as well as between Dullah (Zaqi Ismail) and Peggy (Bethan Mary-James), contain touches of true chemistry and palpable frisson, but this is often limited by the depth and stakes of the script.
The play addresses the ideas of freedom, be that from oppression or from suffocating protectiveness. Almost every character in the play is shackled by something, whether that be loss, societal pressure, racism or love, however the play falls short in either releasing or tightening these burdens to create a more defined dramatic arc. The dramatic crescendos of loss and connection, love and violence, become mostly tarred by the scripts flitting from one conflict to the next, merely signposting emotion, without truly cultivating our relationship with the actors.
At the outset, we are greeted with the warm enveloping glow of a period (1930-40s) living room, a smattering of flags adorn the walls and rugs the floor. This warm glow repeatedly snaps out to be replaced by a cold white wash to denote the outside of this safe space. Even during this snap transition, the actors within continue in miming and creating a powerful sense of place. While the inspiration for the play is conducive to great nuance and discovery, there is little thought-provocation or analogous topical thought, which so often elevates works of drama. The play is liberal in humour, which is generated from any number of sources and methods, whether that be young Georgina (Rosie Ekenna) or sailor Norman (Zephryn Taitte). In one instance Georgina and Nate bond and she beats her chest and salutes him to the audience’s mirth. While questions of morality and ethical choices are raised, the audience is never truly given the space to fully explore these ideas.
Trouble in Butetown represents a play with its own troubles, but perhaps because of these shortcomings we are never fully emotionally invested in the outcome.
- By: Diana Nneka Atuona
- Director: Tinuke Craig
- Cast Includes: Sarah Parish, Samuel Adewunmi, Ifan Huw Dafydd, Rita Bernard-Shaw
- Donmar Warehouse
- Until: 25th March 2023
- Running Time: About 2 hours and 15 mins including an interval
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