Festival Theatre, Wed Jun 18
Vandemonian Lags is a presentation of 17 stories from an earlier time in Australia’s history when the boats kept coming and, laden with untrustworthy convicts from Van Diemen’s Land who had in turn been transported for often petty crimes, were now threatening the jobs and livelihoods of the settlers in Victoria by boarding boats to Port Phillip. The resonance with current times is immediate!
Far from being a dry historical tutorial or a clutch of warm and earnest folk songs, this is an edifying but lively production full of songs from a range of styles that have immediate appeal, but no doubt the pathos imbedded in the songs will only increase with repeated listening.
The performances are also strong. Mick Thomas (Weddings, Parties, Anything) and filmmaker brother Steve Thomas have pulled together a cast of superbly talented and respected singers and musicians. What happens is not an ego contest or a group of people getting lost in the crowd. The vignette nature of the storyline allows each singer, each a songwriter in their own right, to present a strong moment in the style for which they are known, before slipping back into the supporting cast. Standout songs from Darren Hanlon and Sal Kimber, Liz Stringer, Ben Salter, Tim Rogers, Jeff Lang, Van Walker and Mark Wallace kept the entertainment coming. The singers were all dressed in costumes from the era so, visually, the stage action was very impressive.
The screen above them projected a visual feast from the WW1 and earlier eras, along with some recreated footage which gave the on stage action further context. Although there was a potential danger of this causing a distraction the visuals was always interesting, drenched in deep red filters, and genuinely added to the mood of the stories being told.
The individual stories are held together by the outrageous and condescending commentary of two court judges from the comfort of drinks in the Hobart Club. Brian Nankervis speaks with clear diction, making him a most suitable narrator with the added treat of his natural RocKwiz-style sense of comic relief. The way he and Tim Rogers (You Am I) represent the high moral ground as court judges is delicious; Rogers is clearly having a lot of fun and demonstrates some fine acting skills in the process; any fears that he is only there for this purpose are swept away in the second half when he rocks out in more familiar style with a song about the scandal involving the Launceston hospital being used as a brothel.
The writers wear their hearts on their sleeves in this production as they lament the convicts’ tales of mostly petty crimes, born out of poverty, yet their sentences were so harsh. The fact that their stories have been so well researched and recorded makes its message as powerful as the show proved itself to be.
For anyone who unluckily missed seeing this fantastic presentation of Vandemonian Lags, DVDs and CDs are available.
by Adrian Miller