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The Transports (Norwich, Dragon Hall)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Ballad opera has an honourable history in this country, stretching all the way back to the Pepusch-Gay production of The Beggar's Opera in 1728 and accommodating Arne, Vaughan Williams and Britten among others over the next couple of hundred years. Peter Bellamy's The Transports was first performed in Norwich Castle in 1978 and is now given a re-orchestrated staging by the Crude Apache Theatre Company.

Bellamy was primarily a folk-song collector and singer, one with a strong social conscience. In this through-composed piece, both elements shine through. The numbers for the most part keep to the traditional three-four and four-four time signature and emphasis on minor keys; this is particularly effective for the unaccompanied solo in which a woman recounts the problems of keeping alive in a harsh world where her menfolk work hard for very little pay and so turn to other (dangerous) ways of putting bread on the family table.

The convicts' scene on board to ship taking them to Botany Bay and Tasmania (then Van Diemen's Land) also works very well, as does the coach journey from Plymouth to London when the former servant-girl sentenced to transportation for theft is separated from the baby she has borne to another convict, Henry Cable. Both Susannah and Henry are real people who lived in or near Norwich, part of the 1786 First Fleet of convicts. His father hanged for their part in a botched attempted burglary; both Susannah and Henry were lucky to escape the gallows.

Musical director Tim Lane is occasionally let down by his nine-piece band, though the ten cast members – most of whom play multiple roles – bring the right sort of sincerity and rough-hewn style to their singing and acting. The earth colours of Amanda Greenway's costumes suit the mood and there's a clever use of props to set the scene as the different confrontations and journeys unfold. Jo Edye and Panda are the directors.


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