By Bradley Storer
It had been a wonderful week for Australian music theatre, with a limited and critically acclaimed season of Jon English’s Paris and then a Melbourne remounting of the new original musical Ned after a successful Bendigo premiere just over two years ago. It seems inevitable that the two will be compared, but it can be safely said that both make a brilliant case for the vitality and necessity of new Australian musical theatre works.
Ned tells the story of the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) bushranger from childhood to his death by hanging, and the book by Anna Lyon and Marc McIntyre firmly takes the view of Kelly as a good, honourable man driven to extremes by injustice and government corruption. The opening choral number sets up the evening as an interrogation of the legend and the ambiguous figure at its centre.
Nelson Gardner brings a loveable larrikin-quality and charisma to the central role, making it easy to sympathize with him and the hardships we witness him first suffer and then rebel against. The first act grounds us in the reality of living in nineteenth-century Australia, and we’re allowed to witness the close and loving bonds between family and friends that will soon be stretched and torn apart.
As in Paris, we are treated to a veritable feast of young Australian talent amongst the cast of Ned. Robert Tripolino, Brent Trotter and Connor Crawford are fantastic as the trio of friends who along with Ned are drawn into conflict with the law, and their voices meld beautifully in the lyrical “White Dove”. Alana Trater and Hannah Frederickson are wonderfully girlish and infectious in their playful chemistry before bleak events force them into maturity, Trater in particularly growing in gravitas before unleashing the shattering “No Way Back” in the family’s darkest hour.
Nick Simpson-Deeks as the meek police officer Fitzpatrick, whose initial kind nature tips over into bitterness and violence, is adorably awkward and well-meaning and manages the character’s slide into darkness with palpable pathos. Anchoring the entire cast (and quite possibly the whole show) is Penny Larkins as Ellen, the matriarch of the Kelly family – grounding the character with determined optimism and joy, Larkins traverses the biggest arc of the show as Ellen watches one by one her family taken to prison, ending up there herself to protect her children and comforting her son in his last moments. When Ellen is pressured by the police in the second act to give up the location of Ned’s gang, Larkins unsheathes the steel hidden beneath the surface in the defiant “My Son”, almost bringing their audience to their feet mid-show roaring with applause.
Adam Lyon’s score is dazzling throughout, managing to find its own uniquely Australian identity in its sound, and under the masterful hand of musical director and conductor Kellie Dickerson every moment of music was truly epic.
The only criticism that could be levelled would be at the book – while the show’s dedication to exploring and individuating all the central characters is wonderful, it comes at the cost of losing focus on Ned as the centre of the piece. Oddly, Ned himself only has two solo numbers throughout the entire show, and while the optimistic and yearning “Hope of Australia” is a brilliant song at the beginning of Ned’s journey there is sadly not much besides dialogue with other characters to define the later stages of his trajectory. Director Gary Young did a stellar job of staging this piece in a concert setting, but on the night the second act of Ned felt slightly weaker than the first. This was quite possibly because of the long stretches of dialogue that would play more strongly in a fully-staged production, but in a concert tended to drag down momentum.
These small criticisms aside, Ned more than proved itself worthy of national attention and development, and we can only hope this piece receives the funding and further opportunities to grow it deserves – with time, Ned could be THE great Australian musical.
Venue: National Theatre, St Kilda
Date: Monday 17th July
Image by Marty Williams