A musical about Irish women getting shipped off to Australian penal colonies? With a wedding and a happy ending? Behold Transport, a seafaring drama with music and lyrics by Larry Kirwan that seeks to uplift downtrodden souls with tales of hope.
The subject is ostensibly serious: In the 1830s and ’40s, British colonialists forcibly removed 4,000 female “undesirables” from Ireland. Some were expelled for stealing food to survive; others were chosen on the basis of moral suspicions or mental illness. In passage they endured intolerable conditions in the lower passenger holds; many died. Upon arriving in southern Australia, the survivors were sent to penal colonies to correct gender imbalances and bear children to other prisoners. Back home, famine and emigration began depleting Ireland’s populace.
You could imagine a rigorous play responding to the weight of this pain-infused history. But Transport chooses a trite form at odds with this gravity. Every character on this supposedly wretched vessel turns and pours out their vexed heart to us in I-will-go-on ballads. True, Thomas Keneally’s script gives brief hints of darkness: a storm, a quick rebellion, a death — not to mention a Cassandra-like character (Terry Donnelly) who keeps making the same prophesy of the blights soon to befall Ireland.
Overall, however, this one-dimensional crew and their passengers are so well-intentioned and morally upstanding that Transport feels more like a Sunday school pageant than theater for thinking adults. Two of the three-man crew fall ruefully into innocent love with lovely prisoners, winning affections and redeeming futures; bland romantic ballads are sung, and the deportation ship starts to look more and more like the Love Boat. Only the stern, judgmental Captain Winton (Mark Coffin) remains an obstinate baddie, though we can spot his inevitable conversion to goodness from far off, the way a watchman scans the horizon for landfall.
Unfortunately, the overweening awkwardness radiating from the stage is not simply a new musical’s birth pangs. The clunky dialogue and relentlessly sentimental songs prove too much for the cast to surmount in the Irish Rep’s tight quarters. (Tony Walton directs.) The convicts wish they were bound for America rather than undeveloped Australia; if only Transport, too, had set sail for fresher shores.