The cast of The Transports – The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane, Greg Russell and Matthew Crampton – took to stage of Exeter Phoenix on a memorable and eventful evening. Across the UK, thousands took to the streets to protest against Donald Trump’s decision to ban nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days. In Exter, large numbers joined in those protests, including the cast of the night’s performance…what later followed on stage delivered an equally memorable and potent message.
The classic Ballad Opera The Transports was first released on record in 1977. It was conceived by the brilliant Peter Bellamy after he heard the story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes via Norfolk historian Eric Fowler. As well as being a story of the first fleet of convicts transported to Australia from 1787-88 it’s also a story of human tragedy, romance and hope. The cast of the original recording featured Bellamy alongside the likes of Dave Swarbrick, A.L. Lloyd, Cyril Tawney, June Tabor, Martin Carthy, The Watersons and Nic Jones who I spotted in the audience last night.
The new production was captivating and engaging, comical and sad, uplifting and thought-provoking. It was clear from the start that a lot of work and effort had gone into the production as this was not just a revisit but a remarkable reinterpretation. It was a combination of elements that made the production work so well and which, not surprisingly, led to a standing ovation from the Exter audience at the end.
If you’ve heard the original 1977 release (or the 2004 revisit, also available on Free Reed Music), you would be immediately aware of the new musical arrangements by Paul Sartin (Bellowhead and Faustus). Sartin’s contemporary arrangements added a wonderful new depth and emotion that allowed the audience to engage with the story unfolding before them. Hardly any props were used in the production, so the music and lighting were a vital part of the atmosphere.
Alongside some great musicianship from some of most well-respected contemporary folk performers of today were vocal performances of equal measure. The two lead characters played by Sean Cooney (The Young’uns) and Rachael McShane (Bellowhead) provided some of the most moving moments alongside some top solo performances from Nancy Kerr and Greg Russell. Of equal note was the harmony singing of the entire cast, especially the final Roll Down, a shanty which saw the audience joining in.
The cast was exemplary in the roles they each played and with The Young’uns on stage you knew comedy was never far away. David Eagle was naturally on top form although Greg Russell (the hero) provided more than a fair share of the laughs.
It was Matthew Crampton‘s narration which tied it all together and gave the production its modern twist. This is a new element to The Transports, and the historical and modern context Crampton provides is the silk thread which is impossible to ignore or forget. He made a strong connection with the audience when he spoke of local people and places specific to Exter and the South West; you could hear the gasps as he revealed a history that surprised many. One was the story of Polish migrants who struggled to make their way to the UK in 1941 to continue their fight in Word War II. They eventually became 307 Squadron and were based in Exeter. They became known as The Night Owls (also known as Lwow Eagle Owls) and were responsible for defending the South West and South Wales from aerial bombardment during WWII.
One of the most moving stories, however, was that of Syrian migrants attempting to cross a strait of deep water without the aid of a boat…the song which told of these ‘Dark Waters’ was by far one of the most emotional moments of the evening.
There was no doubt from the audience reaction that the night was a resounding success on so many different levels including raising the awareness of the part migration has played in shaping our history and the ongoing struggle faced by refugees. The performance by all those involved left a deep impression, one that was felt long after the stage had fallen dark.
With just four dates left to run (three of which are sold out, according to the tour page) I can only hope that The Transports takes to the stage again and that an album follows…it went well beyond my expectations, I can’t recommend it enough. It was simply one of the best stage performances I’ve seen in a long time.
Henry Cabell: SEAN COONEY (The Young’uns)
Susannah Holmes: RACHAEL MCSHANE (Bellowhead)
The Father: PAUL SARTIN (Faustus/Belshazzar’s Feast/Bellowhead)
The Mother: NANCY KERR
The Narrator: MATTHEW CRAMPTON
The Turnkey: GREG RUSSELL
Abe Carman: DAVID EAGLE (The Young’uns)
The Shantyman: SAUL ROSE (Faustus/Waterson: Carthy/Whapweasel)
The Jailer: BENJI KIRKPATRICK (Faustus/Bellowhead)
The Coachman: MICHAEL HUGHES (The Young’uns)
The production is being run in alongside their own Parallel Lives Project in which a refugee or migrant support group is invited to each performance. Last night, City of Sanctuary were present to make the audience aware of the work they do in building a culture of hospitality, especially for refugees seeking sanctuary from war and persecution.
The Transports Website: http://www.thetransportsproduction.co.uk
City of Sanctuary: https://cityofsanctuary.org