‘Transport’ is the latest presentation from New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre. Written by renowned Irish author Thomas Keneally, this new musical tells the story of four impoverished Irish women traveling as convicts from Cork, Ireland to Sydney, Australia in 1846. The entirety of the action takes place aboard the ship as the four young women struggle against their new bonds and a ruthless English captain on their way to a frightening new country.
‘Transport’ keeps us entertained on the voyage with strong performances from its cast. Jessica Grove shone as Kate O’Hara, the feisty Irish rebel on the ship with a strong, clear voice. Patrick Cummings plays her love interest, Hennessy, with all the bravado and stalwart handsomeness that the high seas require. Pearl Rhein as Bride Riordan was also a standout: the deep, soulful quality of her voice carried the musical along its voyage.
Thomas Keneally presents an interesting and little-told story, at least on this side of the Pacific: the transportation of convicts to Australia is not a story frequently heard in the US. However, as an Australian myself it is one I am well familiar with. It is decidedly interesting to see the story of female convicts played out, who often get little attention, particularly given the rebellious attitude of this particular cast of characters.
However, the musical is ultimately confined to being something of a quaint period piece. While the score, by Larry Kirwan, is indeed infused with jaunty Irish folk, it is hardly the kind of music to carry an entire show and lacks the inspiration and contemporary excitement of something like 'Once.' Moreover, both Mr. Keneally and Mr. Kirwan suffer from the plague that often befalls musical writers in utilizing songs as a means of dreary exposition rather than as expressions of emotion. When, in Scene 1, each of the characters gets a song to explain their backstory, it becomes something of an ill omen for the long voyage. When the musical is at its best, the melancholic Irish tunes are expressions of love or sorrow. At its most floundering, they are Irish jigs to enthuse the audience into clapping or mere plot devices to move the story along.
The story itself relies a lot on backstory: Irish rebellion and daring escapes to New York are mentioned frequently, yet the narrative on the ship itself moves in dips and starts. The plot also suffers from a lack of focus: there are two love stories to follow, which, compounded with the tragic romantic backstory of each of the convicts and a very bizarre allusion to the Captain’s sexuality, becomes altogether confusing. Had the musical focused more exclusively on the development of the Hennessy-Kate story, it would have been easier to navigate the plot’s course and made the emotional impact of the tale all the more profound.
Richard Pilbrow’s lighting design was effective in situating us on the high seas, as well as detailing each of the intimate scenes of the play. Mr. Walton’s set design was also effective in its malleability, suggesting various parts of the ship with the turning of the stage or the glow of a light. However, while the audience was seated on two sides of the stage, almost the entirety of the performance was played to the front-facing seating bank, with those unlucky enough to sit on the side of the stage deprived of almost all the show’s action.
‘Transport’ is a buccaneer kind of musical, with romance and adventure on the high seas. At its best it entertains, but rarely moves. Moreover, the production is so stuck in its period-ness that it can really only be described by a word familiar to descendants of those convicts who now populate Australian shores: naff.
Through Apr. 6 at the Irish Repertory Theatre.