Review: The Thorn Birds, the musical - a tragic disaster in Swansea
The Thorn Birds - which began life as Colleen McCullough's multi-million copy best selling 1977 novel and went on to become one of the most successful TV mini-series of the 1980s - deals with the clash between passionate love and faithful duty to God. Anyone who finds the courage to go to see the new musical version by Ms. McCullough and German classical composer Gloria Bruni, currently in the early stages of its world premiere tour at the Swansea Grand Theatre, may well wonder that if God exists why would he allow such mindless nonsense to be presented to them.
The title of the novel - which is set in the heart of the Australian outback - is drawn from the legend of a bird that sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other, but only at the cost of great pain and symbolizes the tenderness of a brief, forbidden love affair between heroine Meggie and Father Ralph de Bricassart that results in great pain and tragedy. It is an epic tale with a powerful and heartbreakingly emotional core. Unfortunately all the power and emotion is lost in this misguided attempt at a musical.
Essentially Colleen McCullough's libretto lacks focus and tends to ramble aimlessly instead of trying to get into the heart of its primary plot-line - the relationship between Meggie and Ralph and the way that God and religion loom over their lives like a dark spectre. The characters are incredibly wooden and the dialogue reaches deep into the depths of banality and tends to insult the intelligence of the audience by constantly stating the patently obvious. Similarly Ms. McCullough's ham-fisted and hackneyed lyrics sink into an abyss of trite nonsense. Gloria Bruni's music score is pleasant and at times even quite stirring but it is never memorable and often the songs spring out of nowhere, failing to serve the needs of the character and the dramatic moment, and the style of the music is totally at odds with the mood of the scenes in which the songs appear.
Director Michael Bogdanov tries hard to make sense of the dire libretto with workmanlike and effective staging and Sean Crowley's set design, complete with evocative and beautiful projections, looks quite stunning - but it is not sufficient to mask the dross of the text.
Amongst the cast, Matthew Goodgame exudes a definite presence as Ralph and his vocals are powerful and beautifully toned. Veteran Peter Karrie does his best in the role of Archbishop Contini-Verchese - a character who acts as a completely unnecessary narrator to the action and is more of a distraction than an asset, suddenly bursting into strains of huge rock vocals at incredibly inappropriate moments. Helen Anker is very good as Meggie, again trying her best to make mediocre material work. There is one point in the show where she has to sing during a scene in the blistering heat of the Australian cane fields and show her frustration and torment in having to suffer her life in this Godforsaken place, married to a man she does not love while still madly in love with Father Ralph. The frustration she so credibly demonstrates could well be the utter frustration of having to waste her considerable talents performing in this travesty of a show.
As God plays a pivotal role in the plot-line, hopefully divine intervention will prevent this drivel from gracing a stage for much longer.