Thursday, June 19, 2014




Devised and directed by Mick and Steve Thomas. Musical Direction by Mick Thomas. Adelaide Festival Centre in association with ROAR Film and DARK MOFO 2013. Commissioned by the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. June 18 2014

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Vandemonian Lags. Festival Theatre. Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2014

When is a cabaret not  cabaret? When it is a Folk Musical. Whether Roar Film and DARK MOFO 2013’ Vandemonian Lags from Tasmania warrants a place in a cabaret festival is a matter for conjecture. What is ultimately relevant is that it should be judged on its merit, which is variable at best. The musicianship is undoubtedly outstanding, the film footage fascinating and the singing enthusiastic and true. Dramatically, this lengthy exploration into the convict history of Tasmania’s past is less engaging.

Vandemonian Lags presents 17 individual tales from the 73,000 convicts that were transported to Van Diemen’s land between 1804 and 1854. 17 original songs, comprising mostly folk ballads with a couple of surprising rock numbers to tell the tales of prostitute Jane Torr and Dickens’s inspiration for Fagin, Isaac Solomon, the Prince of Thieves. Each of the 17 stories is linked by actors Brian Nankervis and Tim Rogers, who take on a variety of roles from Melbourne Club gentlemen to Assize Judges. Their dialogue is perfunctory, serving merely to link the songs that tell the sad tales of the convicts and their ancestors. It is interesting enough in itself, but the show is seriously in need of clear and inventive direction. It is a song list in search of a drama, a concept without a spine, and the dramatic structure soon becomes predictable. What begins with the promise of a haunting and melancholy tale of a cruel and unjust history from the beguiling strains of a female voice singing Can You See Across The Sea, and shortly joined in chorus by two other singers in convict dress becomes repetitive as each character steps forward to the microphone to recount their sad tale in song.

There are moments of prophetic revelation in the stories of the convict refugees arriving in boats across the Bight that hide no relevance to a contemporary history, of mixed marriages or the unfortunate fate of a young lad who stole a book to further his education; of the woman forced to resort to a life on the streets to survive, and the convict whose fortunes on the goldfields gave him the wealth to buy the property where he committed his crime and of  the artistic ancestor of convicts who gave his life in the theatre of war. Each story deserves the theatrical fullness of its power. Writing, direction, musical direction and dramaturgy lag behind in need of artistic vision with theatrical flair.

Most of the performances in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival are 70 minutes in length. The dramatic telling of eight stories, embellished by striking ballads and articulate rock numbers, and accompanied by the intriguing projections that inevitably drew the eye from the performer to the silent footage would have shaped a show that had the might to mesmerize, fascinate, move and surprise.

The enthusiastic applause by members of the audience was worthy recognition of the strengths of the performance, but for this reviewer Vandemonian Lags remains a work in progress, a folk musical in search of direction and an interesting tale in search of a spine.