The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
Here we are again, back at the ever welcoming Apex for the first gig of the new year. An absolutely fabulous start, but I’m not entirely sure how to translate this emotion into words for I have never before reviewed such a show. For starters The Transports are not a band, The Transports is the name of the overall thing and each song, in sequence, helps to tell the complete story, and I am not a drama critic.
So it is probably best to begin with the context: The late great Peter Bellamy, who bestrode the UK folk scene in the 1960s and 70s, was a native of Norfolk and a large proportion of his repertoire came from said county and, in the course of his research, he came across the tale of two petty criminals who were transported to Australia in 1787. Their story became the basis of his folk opera The Transports, the album of which was released, to critical acclaim, in 1977, and this show is an updated retelling of said thing.
I use the word updated advisedly for Bellamy’s musical narration has gone, to be replaced by a spoken word narrative from Matthew Crampton, which encompasses contemporary tales of refugees and slavery, for there are parallels to be drawn.
Indeed Crampton is the first to speak, setting the scene of acute rural poverty that could easily drive a desperate man to crime in order to keep body and soul together, and that theme is continued via the first song, “Us poor fellows”, possibly the only unrequited love song to employment. As you’ll have guessed crimes are soon committed, criminals captured, some sent to the gallows and some sentenced to transportation. Various twists and turns lead to our main protagonists Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes meeting in Norwich gaol and, eventually, finding their way, via the first ever convict ship bound for Australia , to Botany Bay, and I’m pleased to say that there is a happy ending, testament to the spirit, resolve, infinite hope, and sheer strength of will possessed by Henry, Susannah and the others who arrived in New South Wales intact.
That is a story which could easily become melodrama, but thanks to terrific songs and musicianship from the cream of the folk crop it never does, although it does stray dangerously close to kitsch at times, and, possibly, it relies too heavily on the narration to instil any tangible sense of foreboding and despair.
Despite all that I came away with my soul enriched after having been on a journey full of the joys of love, the grief of bereavement, the grind of poverty, the fortunate turn of circumstance and, above all, the absolute belief that the future will bring us all to a better place. All this in an entertaining, thought provoking ninety minutes which I would heartily recommend as, after all, how can you go wrong with the combined talents of Faustus, The young un’s, Greg Russell, Nancy Kerr and Rachael McShane all on the one stage at the same time.
So there we are, I’ll readily admit that this review contains an absence of highlights or lowlights, but it is all about the ensemble. It works beautifully as a whole – remove one card and the house falls down – if every play I’ve ever seen had such a cast I could become a drama critic.