Celtic Connections

The Transports

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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Rob Adams

four stars

BACK in 1975 folk singer and songwriter Peter Bellamy learned the story of two thieves, Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes who, in the 18th century, had met in Norwich jail while waiting to be transported to, it turned out, Botany Bay. They were the lucky ones as Cabell’s two accomplices were hanged and unlikely as it might now seem, he and Holmes were able to cohabit in prison, where Holmes had a son.

Bellamy took his own life, aged forty-seven, in 1991 but he left a mighty legacy in the folk opera that he developed from this piece of local history and this handsome new production both serves his memory splendidly and gives the Transports contemporary resonance.

It’s quite a tale, showing bleak inhumanity but also heroic humaneness, and narrator Matthew Crampton strikes just the right balance between informing and entertaining as, despite some grim statistics and all too apt comparisons with today’s mass migration, the show manages to be both tragedy and romp.

There are excellent individual performances, especially from Greg Russell in the roles of the pompous know-all who recommends Botany Bay as the destination and the turnkey who persuades the home secretary to let Cabell and Holmes take their son with them.

This is, though, essentially an ensemble success with instrumental arrangements drawing fiddles, frets, cello, accordions and reeds together appositely and the cast of ten’s voices uniting in magnificently lusty, rousing chorus on a triumphant Green Fields of England. It’s just setting off on tour, but I don’t think it’s giving too much away to those who haven’t seen previous incarnations to mention Cabell’s transformation from convict to chief constable.