The Transports at the Met, Bury Back

I wasn’t alive when Peter Bellamy’s record The Transports – featuring many of the biggest folk stars of the day – was first released in 1977, but this latest reimagining is bringing his classic ballad opera to new audiences. With a line-up including The Young’uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr, Rachael McShane, and Greg Russell, this production has updated Bellamy’s original with new arrangements as well as narration by author and folk singer Matthew Crampton, who has added vital historical – and contemporary – context to the original songs.

The Transports tells the gripping tale of a family living in 1780s England, who are driven to crime by extreme poverty and hardship; an honest and hardworking father and his son Henry are forced to commit burglary alongside a seasoned felon, but all are caught in the act and harshly punished. Paul Sartin (of Faustus) as the father ably conveyed the despair of a poor man forced to steal to survive, while David Eagle (of The Young’uns) provided a comic turn as an unrepentant thief. Nancy Kerr then performed a moving lament of a mother who has lost her husband to the scaffold and her only son to transportation. Matthew Crampton’s narration succinctly outlined the vagaries of the eighteenth-century penal system, and the intended message was clear: labouring people suffered unfairly at the hands of a legal system where theft of a handkerchief could result in transportation.

Henry, played by Sean Cooney (The Young’uns), is sent to Norwich Gaol where overcrowding and poor conditions result in prison riots (as Crampton notes, ‘same old shit’). It is not all doom and gloom, however, as he meets a young servant woman named Susannah, who is also destined for transportation. In the part of Susannah, Rachael McShane – formerly of Bellowhead – puts in a strong performance as she sings of the hardships and drudgery of the life of a servant, as well as a cautious hope of starting a new life in the colonies. The pair go on to have a child together, and their love story runs throughout; the end of the first act leaves this new family torn apart, as Susannah and her child are dragged off to be transported without Henry.

Although a compelling tale of labouring-class life in the eighteenth century in its own right, this retelling of Bellamy’s classic takes on new significance as a vehicle through which to explore themes of migration and dislocation. On the day of this performance, the day after President Trump signed an executive order restricting entry to the US from seven countries, the contemporary relevance of these themes hardly needed to be explicitly outlined, and the cast largely let the material speak for itself on this score. However, as the audience returned from the interval ready to plunge back into the trials and tribulations of our eighteenth-century actors, we were instead brought into the present day; Crampton told the real-life story of two young Syrian refugees, forced to take their chances swimming across the ocean to safety. Here, the timely addition of a song called ‘Dark Water’ based on these events – and beautifully sung by Sean Cooney – provided an affecting reminder that dislocation continues to shape the world in which we are living. The Transports team also continue to explore the theme of migration through the ‘Parallel Lives’ project, which runs alongside the show and aims to gather stories of migration from the towns and cities where it is performed.

Returning to the eighteenth century, we find Susannah’s child taken from her as she is forced to board a convict ship; rescue comes in the form of an unlikely hero – a prison turnkey – who travels to London and campaigns for the family to be reunited. The race is then on to reach Plymouth in time to stop the convict ship sailing with Susannah on board. Greg Russell brought charm and humour to the role of the unlikely rescuer while, led by Michael Hughes (The Young’uns) as the coachman, the cast performed ‘The Plymouth Mail’ with an energy which almost convinced that they really were hurtling through the countryside. In the end, Henry, Susannah, and their child are reunited to face the arduous and uncertain journey to Botany Bay, where they will start their new lives together. The Transports was originally inspired by the real-life Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes who were indeed transported in the late 1780s, and Crampton concludes their tale by noting their key role as some of the first British migrants to Australia.

The performance was enhanced throughout by sparing but thoughtful use of props and lighting, as stools, boxes, and rope effectively conjured up a scaffold, gaol, carriage, and ship. Most importantly, this was rousing, singalong folk music; alongside ballads of lost love and life, stirring songs like ‘The Green Fields of England’ were ably handled by an experienced cast. The show ended with a spirited rendition of ‘Roll Down’, which earned a well-deserved standing ovation. As the audience filed out it was clear that this had been an enjoyable and moving experience, and – as can so often be the case – I heard no mutterings that ‘it wasn’t as good as the original’.

As a tale of eighteenth-century labouring-class hardship, love, and triumph, The Transports is effective and rousing, but this was so much more than an anniversary reboot of Bellamy’s original songs; it was its contemporary resonance which really brought it to life, as it acts as a call for us to think about how migration shapes our past and our present.

The Transports was on tour until 3rd February 2017 and will be performed at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August 2017.