Review: The Transports, Buxton

Review of The Transports, at The Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton, by Keith Savage

Peter Bellamy’s Ballad Opera was recorded and released 40 years ago. At the time it seemed to be a valid attempt to recall how many poor and petty criminals had been transported to Australia from Britain 200 years before. Their crimes were often minor and desperate and their punishment was harsh – condemned to spend months cooped up on small ships on a 15,000 mile ocean voyage that was still largely one of exploration.

Revived in 2017 the work takes on a new meaning and resonance as daily we hear stories of others making difficult and dangerous journeys – leaving their home hoping to create new and better lives among strangers. Most of the ten singers and musicians touring this revival were not born in 1977 and it necessarily means that they have made this work their own.

The songs have been re-ordered and linked by a narrative that makes clear the parallels between migration forced by the state in the 18th and 19th centuries and that resulting from war and victimisation in our own times.

For sure there were some hardened criminals on the boats bound for the antipodes 200 years ago; no doubt not all those leaving Syria or arriving in Turkey or the Greek islands are wholly innocent – but the overwhelming majority are. They are desperate people taking desperate measures and hundreds die each year attempting to escape daily violence and misery.

Migration is all around us of course – today and in the not so distant past. We were reminded that children abandoned or orphaned in London were brought to work in the mills of Derbyshire in the 18th century. At the same time Derbyshire farm labourers were being wrenched from their families and communities and sent to the other side of the world for stealing a few pieces of cutlery.

This touring production features Nancy Kerr, Rachel McShane, Faustus, The Young ‘Uns, Greg Russell and Matthew Crampton who narrates. With such strong and powerful voices at their disposal it is not surprising that the shanty “Roll Down” and the mighty “The Green Fields of England” stir us to the core. The solo ballads are sung with equal tenderness and poignancy.

The artists have underlined the currency of “The Transports” by inviting local groups working with migrants and asylum seekers to attend the shows and publicise their work. In Buxton the Hummingbird Project which has been raising money and materials for migrants and the displaced across Europe were involved.

“The Transports” is a moving and compelling event and reminds us that the best song and music endures because it remains relevant and no matter how dark the times, they hold out hope for survival and recovery.