Tony Wright’s show takes us back to a particular night – December 8th 1980. The story – based upon Tony’s own experience of growing up as a mixed-race boy in the rough and ready streets of Cardiff, begins with Roddy, a middle-aged mixed-race Cardiff man, talking about that night and what happened to him the night another middle-aged man – John Lennon – was shot.
A Cardiff ‘Rude Boy’, Roddy is caught up with the Caribbean-influenced culture of inner city Cardiff – the sharp suits and Trilby hats often sourced from local charity shops and echoing the smartly-dressed Rude Boys of Jamaica.
Bob Marley’s plaintiff and soulful lyrics would be playing out of houses on the estates where Roddy hung out with his friends, especially those households where Caribbean men had set up home with local girls.
The discovery of reggae by the disaffected youth, often unemployed and on dead-end YTS schemes and the huge success of British-based reggae bands putting their own spin on Ska music, saw teenagers, tired of Punk anarchy, dressing up and evoking the old dance-hall glamour of the 50s.
Groups like The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, Bad Manners, UB40 (referring to the unemployment benefit form that most teenagers ended up filling in) played hugely popular gigs in Cardiff – and also attracted gangs and skinheads, with often viciously-violent finales that spilled out onto the streets.
Rude evokes all of that – and more – in a whistlestop tour of Cardiff in the 80s – from the dreaded dole office – Heron House where we all had to sign on -(just up the road from Splott where Tony was raised) to Rumney Tech to resit school exams, and for partying it was the docks, Adamsdown and the city centre.
Youth unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain was at an all-time high and many kids left school at 16 with no opportunities and few qualifications. But at night, dressed in our Oxfam finery, the city became a playground for self-styled Rude Boys and Girls – it was down to the blues clubs of the old Docks quarter of Butetown and Tiger Bay, and the smart cafes like Astey’s in the centre of town, where one could only afford to buy one cup of tea and nurse it all afternoon, dreaming of success, glamour and romance.
Clubbing in the Top Rank, Bumpers or Flagstones – or for the blues to Monty’s, the Blue Moon or an underground, makeshift club in Grangetown or the docks, and on to Caroline Street for chips in the early hours. No money for a taxi, we would walk home in time to pinch a bottle of Gold Top off the early morning milk delivery float.
Thanks Tony, for bringing back all those memories. The fantastic gigs, the drama, the clothes and the nasty, mindless violence of the rival groups were all evoked. The band played many Ska classics, from A Message to You; Ghost Town; It Must Be Love, and the musicians doubled up as cast and crew too. In particular, Jenny Bradley (from Wonderbrass) was brilliant on sax and singer Olly Wood also played Psycho the Skinhead with not an ounce of irony implied.
The choreographed fights seemed scary and real, the swearing and the way the characters moved through and involved the audience gave the whole event an edgy realism. That and the great soul food from the excellent staff of the host venue – the Rockin’ Chair – and the regular clientele who played snooker and drank Red Stripe during the evening.
Most touching for me was being with smart-looking middle aged former Rude Boys in the audience and us ‘girls’ who knew every word of every song and enjoyed one step beyond our sensible, grown-up lives. Madness? Pure bliss.
Rude – a Ska Musical – by Tony Wright – ‘Give it a Name’ Productions. Directed by James Williams.
At the Rockin’ Chair Caribbean club, Lower Cathedral Rd, Riverside, Cardiff, Oct 24 – Nov 3 2012. Contact Chapter Arts for tickets. Part of Black History Month Wales 2012.
Photos show the opening night: Wendy, sister of the show’s writer, photographed with me by Tony’s other sister, Christine; members of the band including Jenny Bradley; Fran Dimech; Chay Lockyer and Olly Wood; and Sule Rimi, who plays Lollipop. Along with the regulars of the Rockin’ Chair. With thanks for such a warm welcome and lovely company. Big big thanks to Kim, who pointed me at this fab show in the first place. 🙂