The Transports: Phoenix, Exeter, January 30 2017

Its first performance took place in 1977, but rarely has it felt more relevant than today. This adaptation of The Transports, Peter Bellamy’s folk opera about the first fleet of convicts transported to Australia in 1787/88, comes to Exeter on the day of protests across the country at Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The cast – and some of the audience – are in attendance, which makes sense, for The Transports is a story of emigration and denial of freedom.

Transports Exeter
The Transports at Exeter Phoenix. Photo: Amy Eden

It tells of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, both sentenced to death for petty crimes (stealing spoons, in Susannah’s case), but who had their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia. In prison, they fell in love and conceived a child, but were threatened with separation before a heroic turnkey saw that they were at least deported as a family.

This take dispenses with Bellamy’s sung narration, a role which is instead filled by historian and storyteller Matthew Crampton. His spoken introductions are confident and lyrical, making the piece immediately more approachable. He highlights the importance of the story without overselling it, playing up crucial, stinging details – the absurdity of the sentences initially handed down, for example, or the average age of the people in the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp (just 27). And though the history is important, he reminds us, it’s the love story that makes it so relatable.

Having said that, the love story is a rather underwritten element of The Transports, probably because there was little evidence of the sweet nothings Susannah and Henry must have shared. As the leads, Sean Cooney (of The Young’uns) and Rachael McShane (formerly of Bellowhead) have little time to convince us of their devotion, and their duet – Sweet Loving Friendship – isn’t the most passionate composition. It’s sweetly performed, however, and Cooney and cast later deliver the heartaching Black and Bitter Night with conviction, too.

The musical roles are what’s important here, but McShane in particular also has an actor’s instinct, while elsewhere David Eagle makes an excellent, enthusiastically roguish Abe Carman, and Greg Russell provides some much-needed comic relief, most notably as the baby-carrying turnkey.

Wisely, the sets don’t attempt to recreate life in prison or aboard ship too closely. Instead, clever use of boxes and chairs allows the members of the audience to use their imagination. Especially smart is the recreation of the Plymouth Mail carriage, which seems both fragile and fast as it’s urged to London by Michael Hughes.

Bellamy’s careful use of period instrumentation is set to one side. Here, the musical engine room comes from Faustus – Saul Rose, Paul Sartin and Benji Kirkpatrick – with able accompaniment from the rest of the cast. With The Young’uns brawny choruses to call on, there’s a nice balance to be had with the sweet violins and Nancy Kerr’s ever-beautiful soprano. She sings most of The Leaves in the Woodland together with McShane and – as usual in this opera – it’s one of the standout musical moments.

As a version of Bellamy’s original, The Transports is a triumph – a reminder of his genius as both a songwriter and storyteller. What really lifts it, though, is its consistent – but never nagging – insistence in relating the story to other parts of history, and indeed to the present day. Crampton adds local context, telling of the Polish squadron of Spitfire pilots – known as the Night Owls – that fought for the Allies during the Second World War. I knew they existed, but I had no idea their task was to protect the south west and my home town – and to learn so is moving. Many Poles settled in the area, and the next day my dad tells me about descendants of theirs who he has met, now fully part of the community.

Cooney’s own (stunning) composition, Dark Water, is slotted in at the start of the second half, and doesn’t feel out of place. A chilling story about refugees attempting to swim to freedom, it again makes its point without falling into the trap of didacticism.

The story of The Transports may be one of exile and denial, but it’s also one of hope. Perhaps it should be on the school curriculum. Or, if you’ll allow me a flight of fancy, I’d love to see a movie version, perhaps in the mould of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, with Hollywood sets and production values, and the romantic aspect of the story fleshed out further.

An essential tale, then. On the walk home, a tedious loudmouth student rants about what he (tediously) calls the “snowflakes” on the Trump protest. These are dark times, and at that moment the message of The Transports feels crucially important. Spread the word.

The Transports will be at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, August 25-28

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