New Theatre, December 19
Like all art, a piece of theatre is never more perfect than when just an idea: before a word is written. Once the process of making the concept tangible begins, perfection usually has its fall. The idea of writing a new musical about Ned Kelly was good, and Adam Lyon (music/lyrics) and Anna Lyon and Marc McIntyre (book) must be congratulated for that much, and what has resulted certainly contains several elements of a viable, working show. But it seems the brilliant initial idea became blurred and muddled as it grew into words on a page, notes on a score and performers on a stage.
The issues are ones that confront all who try to chisel a work of fiction or theatre out of the hard marble biographical history. Where do you start? How much of the story do you tell? Which slice of the life contains the essence of the drama? What other characters are crucial? Does the work have a point of view, or is it non-judgemental?
With Kelly the latter point is especially poignant: was he a romantic Robin Hood figure; naturally anti-authoritarian; staunchly supportive of the Irish community in a new land just as hostile to them as their old one? Or was he no more than a thuggish, thieving cop-killer? This show presents a Ned whom objective history largely endorses: a Kelly who was not inherently evil, but would not stand by while his family was bullied by a morally-dubious constabulary. Then one crime led to another, and another, until he considered himself at war with the police.
One problem is that it tries to tell too much of the story. At the outset, for instance, about 35 minutes passes before Ned’s mother is arrested, which is the plot’s real trigger. Everything preceding that is back-story of dubious necessity. Another problem is including battalions of characters, yet without us having the central one illuminated from a fresh angle or in particular depth. Basically there are rather more gunshots than there are bullseyes of narrative, character and emotional trajectory.
Miranda Middleton, the show’s director (for Plush Duck Productions), certainly found a convincing Ned in Joshua McElroy. He has the physical presence, the alternating flashes of charisma and menace and a substantial singing voice. Without championing Kelly, per se, the intent has been to make the character sympathetic, on the reasonable assumption that otherwise you’d have no show. His execution and its lead-up, however, left me unmoved. It was merely the inevitable endgame in a succession of conflicts.
The writers’ instincts were right to propel his mother (Jodie Harris) and two sisters (Siobhan Clifford and Cypriana Singh) into the foreground, and perhaps there was still more to be made of their dilemmas, and less to be made of Ned robbing banks and having shoot-outs with the rather blunt-brained constabulary.
Those women were also well-cast, as was Courtney Powell as Ann Jones and Marcus Riviera as Superintendent Hare. But the acting dropped away from reasonable to dire in the rest of the 18-strong cast, and having that number of bodies exposed Middleton’s limits as choreographer.
By contrast having that number of voices made for potent moments in Lyon’s ensemble numbers, although a few songs raised the emotional stakes artificially. The music’s main charm lay in its Irish lilt – something one doubts demanded an orchestra of 15 (under Hamish Stenning) to be realised.