IN 1977, folk singer Pete Bellamy, then a member of The Young Tradition, composed a cycle of folk ballads based on a true story of two petty criminals transported from Norwich Gaol to Botany Bay.
It became The Transports, heralded as the first folk opera (presumably leaving The Beggar’s Opera aside) and the recording was and remains a legend in English folk music.
Since then several revivals have been mounted – some sung and some staged. Now a new generation of folk singers has taken the work, held it up against the mirror of current migration and controversy, and created a newly (and magnificently) arranged production of the work, with a worthy, earnest and often jarringly “presentor-ish” narration by Matthew Crampton.
With news of an Australian tour later in the year – taking The Transports to the place their ancestors actually landed and made their homes – the show came to Yeovil Octagon, where a large audience thrilled at the sounds of this marvellous cast.
The three members of The Young’ uns – Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes – are joined by other folk luminaries, singers and multi-instrumenalists Nancy Kerr, Saul Rose, Benji Kirkpatrick, Rachel McShane and Greg Russell, with the multi-talented Paul Sartin who sings, plays and was responsible for the arrangements and musical direction.
The power of Bellamy’s songs, whose words can chill the soul and gladden the heart and whose tunes emboss themselves on the musical memory, is undiminished. A fresh approach brings them, burnished and relevant, to a new audience.
I am sorry to say that the narration, straining to point up the timelessness of refugees and political prisoners, talks to the audience as though it can’t get the point, and using phrases like “America was off-line” and “just the same shit” enunciated in an actorly voice, was risable. Poor Mr Crampton had no idea that his “local” bit (about how people who left Yeovil never returned) would evoke not sadness but loud and sustained laughter from the audience.
The production by Tim Dalling of the New Rope String Band, is well worth a visit. The stirring songs and moving story are sung with a freedom and power that will stay in the memory as long as did the original performers.