New Songs from the Prison without Walls
Theatre Royal Hobart
by Gai Anderson
There is so much to like about this show. It's rich entertainment on so many levels, and the sold out crowd was lapping it up at its premiere at the first DARK MOFO Festival in Hobart on Friday night.
|Image courtesy of MOFO programme|
The talented and prolific Thomas brothers, Steve of Roar Film in Hobart and Mick, of Weddings Parties Anything fame, have outdone themselves in bringing us this dramatized song cycle of eighteen powerful Tasmanian tales. It is based on real stories from Founders and Survivors Storylines, a comprehensive multi-media website created by Steve Thomas. The website tells the story of the making of Australia based on the world heritage listed convict records of Tasmania. Everyone should check it out. It is beautiful, mind-blowing in scope and versions of the songs are there to listen to.
The tales Mick has chosen to turn into song take a particular tack. It explores a largely unknown aspect of the early colony history, where the convict stain was so great that Victoria passed a law forbidding these Vandemonian Lags to run away from their dark past in Tasmania to the promise of a new life even if they had been freed. And yet, as Australia goes to WW1 not 50 years later for king and country, more than 50% of those soldiers are the direct descendants of convicts.
On stage we hear these great songs of tragedy, love, sex and death, brought to life by Mick and 13 other remarkable performers and musicians. All in costume, they include amongst others Jeff Lang, Ben Salter and Jen Anderson. This is all topped off with the larger than life Brian Nannkervis (Rock Quiz) and Tim Rogers (You Am I), who provide the historical context in pantomime as comic narrators. Steve Thomas’s beautiful projections add another layer of interpretation. There is a lot going on.
It is the wonderful music and the emotional truth of the musicians who depict the characters whose stories they sing that really carries this show. From heart-wrenching and haunting folksy ballads, toe tapping bango-plucking, rollicking jigs, marching rhythms to gypsy and rock and roll thrash, there are some exceptionally crafted songs, beautiful harmonic singing and stand out performances.
Amongst my highlights was the Vandemonian Lags song itself, Jane Gilligan on the Town, and the duet between Jeff Lang on electric guitar and violinist Jen Anderson. There are far too many to mention. Mick Thomas wrote most of the songs. It was some of those written by Ben Salter, Van Walker, Liz Stringer, Darren Hanlon and Jeff Lang that were among my favourites.
More variation to the sometimes overly folksy sentimental ballad style of Mick Thomas, particularly in the first half, could have added to the dynamics of the show. And I did wonder about the sometimes seemingly random jumping to WW1 stories. But these are minor criticisms.