“…the head of a bull-dog, the eyes of a vulture, sunken in a mass of bones, neglected beard, sun-burnt, grog-worn, as dirty as a brute… made up of low, vulgar manners and hard talk”, is the way Raffaello Carboni (author of the eyewitness account of the Eureka Stockade) described the people known as Vandemonian Lags at the Prince Albert Hotel in Ballarat, 1855. I don’t think he liked them…
These “inveterate murderers, audacious burglars, bloodthirsty bushrangers” (he wrote it like those are bad things), are amongst the protagonists in these engaging tales told in song, dialogue and visuals in the ambitious new work Vandemonian Lags by Mick Thomas.
The musical theatre piece was commissioned by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), following the Founders and Survivors, Storylines online project by the author’s brother, writer and filmmaker Steve Thomas. The stage version, telling seventeen fascinating stories about Tasmanian convict history, is touted as “New Songs of Transportation from the Prison Without Walls”.
The haunting Can You See Across The Sea led into “colonial anchormen” Tim Rodgers and Brian Nankervis guiding the show as narrators/performers, the latter in one role as 1855 member of The Melbourne Club, stating that the “boats keep coming and it shouldn’t be allowed”. The parallel to current affairs was not lost on the audience; the thought-provoking beginning evoking wry laughs.
Martha Hayes, Jane Gilligan on the Town, and Sex Hospital, were amongst the remarkable stories delivered by consummate musicians with good humour to lighten the dark subject matter. The who’s who of the Australian music scene including Jeff Lang, Ben Salter, Darren Hanlon, Liz Stringer, Van Walker, Craig Pilkington, Mark Wallace, Jen Anderson, Sal Kimber, Michael Barclay, Andy Reid and Shelley Short delivered a wonderful melange of harmonies and instrumentation, respectful of the traditions from which they drew.
The upbeat and powerful It’s Docherty and the travelling verse A Long Long Way revealed there were some happy endings amongst the appalling beginnings some of these people had.
The red-washed on-screen visuals, utilising stock footage, new footage-made-old, mug shots, pixilation, military records, and archival photographs were mostly welcome; some very clever. Occasionally however, they flipped from imperative to distracting; some of the songs and performances were so good they could have stood well enough on their own.
Introduced by a passage from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the intriguing account of Isaac Solomon, a British convict who was possibly the inspiration for “Fagin”, was revealed in Ikey Mo. Energetically sung by Rodgers, the crowd favourite ended the show on a high note.
Vandemonian Lags is a well-crafted, enjoyable history tutorial set to folk and rock songs. The injustices of the day, the inspiring characters brought to life, and the quality musicianship made this show poignant, entertaining, and significant.
Reviewed by Gordon Forester
Venue: Adelaide Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide
Season: season ended
Duration: 2 hours
- Adelaide Cabaret Festival
- Vandemonian Lags website
- Founders and Survivors Storylines website
- Mick Thomas’ website
- Tim Rogers’ website