Ye Olde Rose And Crown Theatre, London
Whisky aficionados will know the name Penderyn as that of a distinguished single malt distilled in south Wales. But in My Land’s Shore, Christopher Orton and Robert Gould’s new musical, one learns so much more about the history surrounding Dic Penderyn (aka Richard Lewis), a martyr to the cause of Welsh worker’s rights and suffrage.
The time and place is Merthyr Tydfil in the early 19th century, when Welshmen mined the coal and smelted the iron that built Queen Victoria’s Industrial Revolution. Trade unions were as nascent as employers were ruthlessly exploitative. Branded as the show’s world premiere, its development has in fact seen Orton and Gould themselves labour through workshops and concert presentations for 15+ years to reach this first fully staged production.
And much like a fine whisky can offer nosings of different scents and influences, so too are there echoes here, not unsurprisingly, of Les Miserables and also The Hired Man, although where those two shows spanned nations and decades My Land’s Shore, keeps its focus tighter. While Penderyn’s story is ripe for a musical theatre treatment, there are times when Orton and Gould’s writing fails to reach emotional depth. The death of a child for example should make an audience weep – here however the writers kill a kiddie so early in the first half that unlike the cared for tragedy of Gavroche’s death in Les Mis, we’ve barely had a chance to get to know this youngster, let alone grieve their untimely passing.
Where My Land’s Shore soars however is in its stirring ensemble numbers and an unwavering excellence throughout its company. Aidan Banyard leads convincingly as Richard Lewis, the supremely principled miner. Enjoying an unconventional romance and marriage with Rebecca Gilliland‘s Angharad, the pair solo impressively. Gilliland defining a magnificent opening with The Way Things Are as Banyard offers a powerful take on the title song. Their duet, Love On The Edge Of Our Tears, is likewise, poignantly played.
There’s as impressive supporting work from Michael Rees as Lewis’ brother (actually named Lewis Lewis) and from Kira Morsley as Rebecca his wife, both beautifully and majestically voiced. Likewise Taite-Elliot Drew as the bad-guy Jenkins makes an impressive career debut, even if, as his character faces an anguished guilt late in the show, it is again hard for the audience to care too much about him.
There are nuggets of Celtic gold to be mined from the show’s ensemble. Hywell Dowsell as the blustering bastard industrialist Josiah Guest is a neatly fleshed out cameo and there is a moment of exquisite vocal magic as Raymond Walsh’s Sean, his beautiful Irish voice backed up by Ashley Blasse’s guitar work, breaks hearts with Air For A Wise Celtic Fool.
Brendan Matthew uses the compact space well with an excellent creative team. Aaron Clingham’s musical direction brings out the lush charms of Orton’s melodies, Joanna Dias multi-layered set is an imaginative use of wood that so easily suggests location, be it miners’ cottages, chapel, or a riotous town square and there’s fine choreography from Charlotte Tooth, especially amidst the raucous routine of Isn’t It A Sin.
Unquestionably a flawed masterpiece, My Land’s Shore represents the stunning potential that exists in new British musical theatre writing. Matthew and Clingham have served the text well, delivering a fascinating narrative and stirring songs in an inspirational production that’s deservedly playing to packed Walthamstow houses. There’s still work to be done, but this show deserves to go on to greater things.
Runs until 26th FebruaryPhoto credit: David Ovenden