To cut to the chase from the start, does this production live up to the almost frenzied reviews that it has been receiving across media outlets? In a word yes - it is a stunning and life-enhancing experience.
For those of us old enough to remember the original vinyl LP release of the classic Folk Ballad Opera in 1977, conceived by the late, and greatly missed, Peter Bellamy, featuring such luminaries as Nic Jones, June Tabor and Cyril Tawney, it would be easy to fall into the trap of making "then and now" comparisons. Rather, let this performance be judged purely on its production merits, be they musical, visual or emotional.
As with the recently released Hudson Records The Transports - A Tale of Exile and Migration, the cast comprised Matthew Crampton, The Young'uns, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane, Faustus and Greg Russell. Human tragedy, relationships and ultimately hope are encompassed as the tale of two young convicts, Henry Kable (Cabell) and Susannah Holmes, both given transportation sentences, who meet in prison, fall in love and have a son, unfolds. They are refused permission to marry, and Susannah, (along with the other women), is to be sent alone to what will be a newly created penal colony in Botany Bay. A sympathetic guard takes the child from Plymouth to London and appeals to the then Home Secretary, who orders that Kable and Holmes be reunited, married and transported with their son to Australia. Kable eventually becomes a constable and achieves some degree of commercial success. A synopsis such as this, however, cannot do justice to the theatrical and musical performance to which tonight's audience was treated.
The story is told through 15 songs, which vary in style, and are linked by narration from Matthew Crampton, an additional concept not present on Bellamy's original release. For me, this is a masterstroke. Contextual settings for each song are clearly laid out and aids the overall cohesion of the piece as a whole. Matthew's delivery, akin to that of Richard Burton on War of The Worlds, was truly magisterial.
The quality of musicianship throughout was high, and, together with sympathetic lighting, helped to express the various moods explored. Similarly, the vocal performances, be they individual or ensemble, ran the gamut of emotions, with Sean Cooney and Rachel McShane, playing the two lead characters, providing some achingly poignant moments. Other highlights included Nancy Kerr's rendition of Leaves In The Woodland and the entire cast's rousing harmony singing of the Saul Rose-led final song, Roll Down, a shanty which had the audience joining in with lusty approval.
Of particular note was the addition of one new song, Sean Cooney's Dark Water, which opens the second half of the performance album and tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Hesham Modamani, who swam a dangerous stretch of sea to escape political persecution. Whilst purists might baulk at this departure from the original, its modern day relevance to the underlying themes of migration, desperation and hope, could not be clearer and the reception it received from the audience echoed the point that this was one of the most emotionally charged elements of the evening.
Immediately following this, the production makes further explicit links between the past and the present through their Parallel Lives project, in which local stories of migration, be they contemporary or historical, are explored. Tonight we learned both of Guilford emigrants of the 17th Century who established a Guildford in Connecticut and also of Kurt Rosenfeld, a German-Jewish boy who arrived in Guildford in 1939 as a kindertransport refugee.
This evening will remain long in the memory, such was the impression left both as a theatrical/musical experience, but also in highlighting and continuing to raise awareness of the part that migration has played in our country's history together with the ongoing struggles and difficulties faced by refugees.
There are few occasions when only superlatives will suffice - this was one. It was the theatrical/musical equivalent of seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time or Van Gogh's The Starry Night - quite brilliant. Anyone with half a brain would have this on the National Curriculum.
Henry Kable - Sean Cooney
Adaptor & Narrator - Matthew Crampton
Abe Carman - David Eagle
The Coachman - Michael Hughes
The Mother - Nancy Kerr
The Convict - Benji Kirkpatrick
Susannah Holmes - Rachael McShane
The Shantyman - Saul Rose
John Simpson - Greg Russell
The Father & Musical Director - Paul Sartin
Sound - Andy Bell
Creative Director - Tim Dalling
Lighting Design - Emma Thompson
In keeping with all venues on the tour, local Parallel Lives partners were in attendance, on this occasion
Farnham help for Refugees in UK & Overseas https://www.facebook.com/farnhamhelpforrefugees/
Guildford & Woking Refugee Hosting Hub https://www.facebook.com/GuildfordWokingHostingHub/
David Pratt - Word & Pictures
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