TOP FOLK ON THE ROAD
There are boxes , planks, a rope; around and upon them, singly and severally, still or moving, the aristocracy of modern folk music. Strings, accordion, guitars, oboe; voices hard and clear, powerful and determined, channeling timeless emotion. Theatrecat wouldn’t usually do gigs, concerts, even opera. But this brief January tour is so remarkable, so theatrical In the power of its storytelling , that unless you have a real antipathy to folk you should know about it.
Besides, it comes apropos on top of that grander chronicle of the late 18c , Hamilton: because it was after the American colonies had broken free, and because they were not short of slave labour, that our penal system resorted to the more distant transportation whose story inspires Peter Bellamy’s majestic song-cycle. The First Fleet took thousands of convicts thousands of miles to Botany Bay and founded white Australia (the narrator does make, in passing, the point that in effect we stole it from the aboriginal peoples).
Anyway, on the 40th anniversary of Bellamy’s creation, with prisons full again and our own world’s refugees crossing dark water to make new lives, arranger Paul Sartin and Matthew Crampton, who has written about refugee peoples, felt it the moment to revive it. The Refugee Council (www.refugeecouncil.org.uk) has a stand at every performance, and an extra song about the drownings in the eastern Mediterranean by Sean Cooney is added to the original. But it’s the tre historical tale that thrills, and brings together a unique stageful of folk musicians and voices : The Young ‘uns, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, Rachael McShane, Faustus. Crampton narrates, Tim Dalling directs.
Told with authoritative passion, the tale is a true and remarkable one, from my own bleak East Anglian fields at a time of agricultural poverty it moves to to Norwich Jail, where young Henry Cable meets Susannah Holmes, both reprieved from the noose for theft. Allowed cohabitation but not marriage in the harsh jail they bear a child; but Susannah is taken for transportation to found the colony at Botany Bay. An extraordinary series of events around her embarkation – a separation, a baby saved by unlikely heroism, an ambush of the Home Secretary at his own table – are so well told that I will not in is context spoil it for newcomers.
In performance it is remarkable: building , mesmerising, Bellamy’s deliberately naif folk rhymes and choruses sometimes rising to poetry but always direct: your nape prickles when Nancy Kerr as the mother who loses her man to the hangman and her son to transport sings . “The leaves in the woodland and the gulls on the shore, cry “you never will walk with your menfolk no more””. There are plaintive songs, but sharp satirical moments as the astonishing Rachael McShane scorns the life of a serving-maid, and lively moments in the Robber’s song and the storming Plymouth Mail on its mission of mercy. The farewell to England brings the whole company together. The great room shakes with it. Can’t stop listening to the album…
http://thetransportsproduction.co.uk/tour On tour till 24 January. Final show, Norwich, where it began…