The stage is sparsely dressed: instruments stacked upstage left (guitars, fiddles, melodeons, cello, oboe); five upstage banners inscribed with fragmentary quotes from Peter Bellamy’s libretto (“fiel of Engl”); a few boxes; a length of rope; a couple of stools. In the course of the next couple of hours, these raw materials will create the haunting music of one of the Folk Revival’s finest works as well as generating settings from Norfolk to New South Wales. The boxes become, among other things, a prison bench, docks (in both senses of the word), gibbets, a mail coach and primitive buildings in a new land, while the rope will represent HMS Friendship, bondage and the shore of Old Blighty. Enhanced by the understated atmospherics of Emma Thompson’s inventive lighting design, this kinetically responsive set is emblematic of the wider message of the night’s show – the story of how rejects and refugees, human flotsam, can become the very foundation of societal advancement.
The house lights dim. Enter four white-clad ghostly figures – the three members of Faustus and narrator Matthew Crampton, whose concept this impressive production is. Setting aside Bellamy’s broadside ballad linking narration, instead he talks directly to the audience, fleshing out the details and background of the story of Transportees Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, while at the same time giving it the wider context of, in his words, “how history has been shaped by the migrations of desperate people.”
As he speaks, the rest of the cast assemble behind him, humming, and adjust the set for the opening scene in a Norwich field. Some of the biggest names in contemporary folk – Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, The Young’Uns, Rachael McShane – represent an apt update of the all-star cast Bellamy assembled for the original recording. Each has a solo – the 10 classic songs from Bellamy’s work are performed intact and entire – and all are part of both the chorus that enhances, with singular appropriateness, every song and the flexible orchestra providing valid contemporary settings (a real bonus for those who found the mock-medieval approach of the original album somewhat distancing.) All the performances are outstanding and one could not single out one without itemising them all. It’s a true ensemble piece and, watching, one felt like a fly on the wall at the most perfect singaround that ever happened.
The production’s only new song – Sean Cooney’s Dark Water inspired by the desperation of a Syrian refugee who attempted to swim the Bospherus at night – began the second half. It’s a powerful, moving, evocative song, rendered all the more so by its being performed in the character of Henry Cabell who has just sung the desperate Black And Bitter Night at the end of Act 1 (“when, not being clairvoyant, he doesn’t know he is in for a happy ending” – P. Bellamy). Granted momentary prescience as he is about to face his own history-making journey over water, he foresees the plight of others. I doubt you will hear a better new song this year. The song was followed by a catalogue of individuals transported with the First Fleet – every one of them from within a dozen miles of tonight’s venue – which flowed into the tale of a very young recent refugee now benefiting from education in Oldham. Talk about bringing the point home!
The second half, aptly, embodies the sense of consensual purpose with more ensemble work - a tight quintet aloft on an impossibly small space, the whole cast stepping forward solo or in unexpected groupings for the various verses of Green Fields Of England, or the Shanty, Roll Down, relocated as the powerful closing number, sung by the complete cast and entire audience (who rose to their feet in spontaneous applause on the last “walk her round, me brave boys”).
Moved by such powerful performances and a narrative that draw parallels across time with the ease of a Tardis and the exquisite detail of a da Vinci schematic, one could never forget that the news on the way over had been full of the new American President’s ban on immigrants from a list of Islamic countries. Whither the potential of those refugees who, like the Transportees, made real the promise of “the hopeful pastures of Van Diemen’s Land”.