Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly remains one of the most notorious figures in colonial Australian history. Whether the Victorian bushranger deserves recognition as a Robin Hood-esque champion of the poor remains arguable (see the recent release of the book Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly, penned by Leo Kennedy, the great grandson of a police sergeant murdered by Kelly).
Ned: A New Australian Musical tells the story of the events that unfolded in North Eastern Victoria 140 years ago that ultimately led to Kelly’s demise. It is the story of a young Kelly (played by Joshua McElroy) who became the man of the house at 12 years of age, when his convict father died. Other members of the household who appear in this production include Ned’s mother, Ellen (Jodie Harris), sisters Maggie (Cypriana Singh), Kate (Siobhan Clifford) and his brother, Dan (Rowan Blunt). From an early age, Ned is aware of the adversarial relationship that exists between his family and the Victorian police, and he quickly becomes distrustful of the authorities. By the age of 16, Ned is serving a jail sentence in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison.
But circumstances escalate quickly when Ellen is accused of the attempted murder of a police officer, Alexander Fitzpatrick (David Hov). Subsequent efforts by Ned, Dan and two of their friends – Steve Hart (Martin Everett) and Joe Byrne (Guy Webster) – to retaliate against the injustice culminates in the fatal shooting of three police officers. Now a man on the run, Ned must evade capture in order to stay alive.
With a book by Anna Lyon and Marc McIntyre, and music and lyrics by Adam Lyon, Ned: A New Australian Musical had its world premiere at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre in 2015. Its Sydney premiere production, staged at Newtown’s New Theatre, has come to the stage care of new independent theatre company Plush Duck Productions. The production is directed and choreographed by Miranda Middleton.
While depicting a chapter of Australian history well worthy of stage treatment, there is some way to go in making Ned: A New Australian Musical a compelling experience. While its second act is generally well structured and appropriately develops the narrative, the first act requires tightening, particularly in the way it introduces us to the Kelly family and establishes their inimical relationship with the police force. It takes too long for the drama in this story to arrive.
Adam Lyon’s Irish-influenced score has a number of impressive songs. Standouts include a catchy opening number featuring a full chorus and based around Kelly’s famous last words (‘Such is life’), and a stirring number in which Ellen Kelly conveys to authorities the strength of her family members’ ties to each other. But there are others that aren’t so successful (notably, an introspective number performed by officer Fitzpatrick). The score is performed here by a 15-piece orchestra led by Hamish Stening.
When it comes to the cast, there are some great performances. Leading proceedings, McElroy is well cast as the legendary bushranger. He’s headstrong and iron-willed to his detriment, but there is something honest and upright in this portrayal of Ned, consistent with the Robin Hood tag attached to Ned Kelly over time. Singh and Clifford are second act standouts, delivering wonderful vocals as the Kelly sisters lament the family unit they once had. Meanwhile, Marcus Riviera lends gravitas to his portrayal of Superintendent Hare, ensuring a man eventually integral to Kelly’s capture is appropriately formidable.
But, as the Kelly family matriarch, Harris is the standout performer in this production. She is wholly convincing in the role, delivering a character who is maternal but tough, and devoted to her family. Coupled with her excellent vocals, this ensures hers is the performance that leaves the greatest impression.
The production has a sizeable and committed ensemble, but further attention needs to be given to their movement on stage – the choreography requires serious rethinking.
On the whole, Ned: A New Australian Musical is a piece with promise. There’s a story worth telling accompanied by some good melodies and, with significant dramaturgical work, this is on its way to being a show with a life well beyond this production.