"Moved by desperation to renewal"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 31/01/17

‘The Transports’ came to Exeter’s Phoenix as part of a sold-out national tour of the folk opera masterpiece by Peter Bellamy. I was deeply moved, first to tears (mixed with laughter) and then to rise to my feet as part of the most richly deserved standing ovation I have ever witnessed.

This new production features musical arrangements by Paul Sartin of Bellowhead and Faustus. Ten remarkable musicians bring their outstanding talents to bear on a story of desperation laced with tragedy, hope, cruelty and compassion. It was a privilege to see and hear Nancy Kerr, Faustus, The Young ‘Uns, Matthew Crampton, Rachael McShane and Greg Russell demonstrate their versatility and musicianship with a suite of songs telling the story of the first transport of convicts from English jails to be sent to Botany Bay. The transported prisoners were considered redeemable; those not so lucky were hanged.

The songs are a marvel – richly varied and beautifully enunciated. Like the very best folk music, traditional and modern, they have a timeless quality, speaking to the human condition with wit and wisdom. One in particular, describing two swimmers battling the dark waters of the Mediterranean, illuminated by starshine, brought me to tears.

I have been balancing the handful of scurrilous tweets and pompous, self-serving, dangerous twaddle emanating from the present encumbrance at the White House with this eloquent paean, through story and song, to all that is good, brave and dignified in the human condition. Author and musician Matthew Crampton connects the songs with the compelling narrative he wrote for this tour. His delivery, sometimes deadpan, sometimes fuelled by quiet rage, told how love can grow in the darkest of places, and heroism can erupt when least expected. Henry Cabell (Sean Cooney) and Susannah Holmes (Rachael McShane) meet in prison, fall in love and have a baby. When the authorities refuse to allow the baby to travel to Australia, an unlikely hero arises in the form of the Turnkey, (Greg Russell) who rides to London from Plymouth, with the baby, to plead with the Home Secretary. His pleas are successful, and the family are reunited. (I like the fact that the experience led him to a different career choice). The small family’s dangerous journey in a tiny ship, across thousands of miles of almost uncharted oceans, enables them to leave behind the perceived disgrace of their petty crimes to begin new lives, achieving respect and success.

The connections with the present day and this two-hundred year old story are skilfully drawn by Matthew Crampton. It was fascinating to hear about the relationship between the people of Exeter and the Polish Spitfire pilots, the Night Owls. On a night when demonstrations all over the country were protesting the latest outrage against immigrants by Donald Trump, we were reminded of the positive contributions to society that come with diversity, open hearts and open doors. Those driven by desperation, if not broken by their despair, will always try to move to new beginnings. It has always seemed to me that the first responsibility of government is not the accumulation of wealth for the few, the imposition of austerity or control and oppression of the other, but the creation of a just and compassionate society – a society where the values demonstrated by work like ‘The Transports’ are never forgotten, but can be celebrated and flourish.

To find out more about the creation of ‘The Transports’ by Peter Bellamy, and the musicians who have been associated with the show, follow this link. http://thetransports.com/the-tale.php

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