My Land’s Shore
Ye Olde Rose And Crowne
10 February 2017
It has been fifteen years in the making, and – finally – this show has made it to the stage in its world premiere full production. It is an epic achievement not only for the writers of this slice of Welsh history, comprising no fewer than 35 musical numbers by Christopher J Orton, with lyrics and book by Robert Gould. It is also a wonderful accomplishment for the creative team of director Brendan Matthew, providing his sixth show in recent times here and showing that he is more than a match for the complex web of stories that make up this script, working with trusted collaborator, choreographer and assistant director, Charlotte Tooth – whose ability to stage big, lively dance numbers on a packed stage is nothing short of miraculous, and with superb arrangements for the band of six by resident MD, Aaron Clingham. And it is another triumph of logistics for the modest room above a pub in Walthamstow that is one of this country’s leading unofficial repertory theatres for musical theatre. A cast of 18 (costumed imaginatively by Celestine Healy) throng a splendid wooden set of multiple levels (by the ever-resourceful Joana Dias) that reaches up vertiginously to the full height of the room and affords half a dozen points of egress (allowing for often very rapid movement of the ensemble).
Based on the true story of Die Penderyn, who rejoices under the somewhat uncomfortable title of being ‘the first Welsh working-class martyr’, it is the brainchild of Orton, and a workshop performance of his original version was seen in London in 2005. Since then, Gould came on board, and, via various re-writes and showcases and recordings, we have arrived at the present ‘version’ of the script. You have to wonder whether it will be their final word on the subject. The score is certainly splendid, offering a veritably operatic array of simply spine-tingling choruses, handsome solos, powerful scenas, and moments of sublime transcendence. I don’t know how it will look to the writers, now they have the benefit of seeing the whole thing working on a stage, but to many in the audience the show seems to belong to the hero’s fiancee, Angharad (the intense Rebecca Gilliland). She is torn between two men: her current beau, working-class hero Richard Lewis (the gorgeous Aidan Banyard), and sinister blast-from-the-past Jenkins (the equally handsome, but in an evil way, Taite-Elliot Drew). Jenkins is a black-clad grimly sour slave to the letter of the law, who is given the mission (his dream job) of hunting down and destroying his old conquest’s golden boy. It is the 1830s, revolution is in the air… again. And if the French tricolour does not wave over the barricades thrown up in the streets of the little mining town where these tragic events play out, it is no fault of the writers of this modern operetta, who have – in fact – created something that is not so much a Welsh answer to ‘Les Miserables’ as a pretty loud dramaturgical echo of it.
However, as things stand, this central dilemma is not given quite the primacy that Boublil and Schoenberg would have afforded it. ‘My Land’s Shore’ is very much a boys’ show, where – sometimes lengthy – political disquisition is bandied about with gusto. Dias even incorporates two parallel towers into her set, and early on Matthews places atop them the representatives of Mining and Factories – William Crawshay (Andrew Truluck) and Josiah Guest (Hywel Dowsell) respectively – for a debate that has all the static self-importance of a Methodist chapel Sunday afternoon special. You will either love that sort of thing or find it a bit of a struggle. In fairness, Victor Hugo does something similar, in his massive novel, when he agonises about Good and Evil and the Soul of Man, etc., but his adaptors were more ruthless with him when it came to writing their libretto.
Nevertheless, there are many times when this lofty high-mindedness works in the show’s favour: the culmination of the show is extraordinarily sparsely textured, and one of the blokes, Sean (the superb Raymond Walsh), stops all hearts with a sensationally simple, but exquisitely phrased and paced strophic song, accompanied – in one of the many masterstrokes of the orchestration – by a single acoustic guitar. Getting this kind of dramaticomusical balance right is a very tricky business, and this inclines me to think that further artistic development of the script may be on the cards. There is just a two-and-a-half-week run here, and this sensational work really, really merits a lot more attention than that.
Until 26 February 2017
Photos: David Ovenden