BWW Review: MY LAND'S SHORE, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
When the word "epic" is used to describe a new musical, seasoned reviewers tend to suck on a thoughtful tooth and thank the hyperbolae of PR for a word they're unlikely to use. There's a mention too somewhere of "the Welsh Les Mis" to ratchet expectations up to 11. And yet, the first number, "Burning", sung by miners glistening with sweat, full of the dignity of labour, their women standing beside them while their masters stand above, had plenty of epic and a touch of Les Mis about it - so, maybe?
It didn't quite turn out that way, but it showed the potential that gnawed away at my mind for the next two and a half hours. The songs, by Christopher J Orton and Robert Gould, continued to be strong, the singing (especially in the choral work we associate strongly with South Wales) varied between the good and the very good indeed and Brendan Matthew's direction never lost its assured purpose on Joana Dias's splendid set. For all that, the production never quite added up to the sum of its parts.
The show is based on the Merthyr Rising, an insurrection of working class communities rooted in the solidarity of mining and fanned by the spirit of reform that led to the Representation of the People Act 1832, which extended the franchise but stopped well short of universal suffrage. That, though, was all in the future - in 1831, miners' wages were cut to starvation levels, the price of bread was hiked and the owners of the mines and ironworks that provided the raw materials to the workshops of the world were in no mood to parley with the workers. Violence, and death, followed.
This production focuses on Richard Lewis, the only man hanged (pour encourager les autres, natch) despite almost certainly being innocent of the particulars of the charge. Aidan Banyard, looking particularly well fed and sporting the orthodontically perfect teeth that the 19th century's Great Unwashed always display in 2017's films and stage shows, sings well and is completely credible as a a man torn between family responsibilities and union brotherhood. He gets good support from Rebecca Gilliland as his wife, Angharad, whose song with the other long suffering women, "I Know I Love Him" is a real highlight in Act Two. There's plenty of excellent playing too by Aaron Clingham's six piece band, the music consistently engaging and interesting, nicely balanced with the voices in an intimate space.
But, and it irks me to have to say it as new musicals are few and far between and so difficult to get right, the show doesn't quite work. In development in one way or another for fifteen years, the production has grown flabby, the plot moving too slowly, characters perfectly well established revisited unnecessarily and subplots (a Thomas Hardy style rape of a servant girl by an evil aristocrat adding little to the story for example) getting in the way of the narrative drive. The 35 songs carry the plot with more than enough clarity and passion, the somewhat pedestrian dialogue merely adding running time to an already long show.
There is an epic musical in My Land's Shore that will have people talking of Les Mis, but it's buried in too many characters, too much exposition and too many songs for it to shine through. One or two of the miners' picks and shovels, judiciously, if metaphorically, deployed, could deliver this work's tremendous potential, if Gould and Orton can be as ruthless as the industrialists their musical so roundly, and rightly, condemns.
Photo David Ovenden.