Deportation. Lest you think the U.S. has the corner on the market for ugly stories, let me share a story of England’s shame of forced migrations during 1788–1868. Some 25,000 Englishwomen, convicted mostly of the crime of poverty, were forced onto ships and sent to Australia and Tasmania where they were sold off for bottles of rum to the 165,000 or so male convicts who had arrived there earlier to become the founding mothers of those nations — if they survived the voyage intact and preferably non-pregnant.
The new musical, “Ladyship,” delivers this story by following a boatload of some 300 women as highlighted by the intertwined stories of 5 women and one young girl as they “find a way” to survive on the six-month voyage overseas despite and sometimes thanks to the crew’s attentions. I hesitate to call it a Cinderella story of migration, but the descendants of the actual resourceful convicts are proud to represent more than 20 percent of the current population of these nations. But for the British convicts, these territories might have been ceded to the French, according to Deborah Swiss, the author of The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. The choice faced by impoverished women was either to survive legally as prostitutes or illegally as petty thieves. One of the most poignant moments of this play occurs when the generally compassionate Captain Adams, played with nuance by Quentin Oliver Lee, refuses to allow a newborn baby to eat. The code is the code, after all, and it’s his job to prevent pregnancies on board. (You can read more about this history here.)
“Ladyship,” consists primarily of music and lyrics by the indie rock duo, “Twigs,” including sisters Linda Good and Laura Good, and their fidelity to the history pays of along with the period setting and costumes and sensitive direction by Samantha Saltzman.
I found the music to be effective, often uplifting, and generally pulling the plot. The ensemble number, “The Code,” in Scene 2, was a particular standout both in lyric and choreography, and the reprised numbers about anchors and stars were strong, with Noelle Hogan, as the young girl Kitty MacDougal delivering a particularly affecting performance of “So Many Stars.” There were some vanilla rhymes (“Pray” and “Day”) that did not advance the quality, but in the main the writers were creative about making the connections and delivered the grim plot with some welcome humor.
The two-hour performance (plus a ten-minute intermission), could be tightened to 1.5 hours, or the writers might consider giving more action/voice to some of the characters. In addition to Kitty, the primary roles of the food thieves, sisters Alice Reed (Maddie Shea Baldwin) and Mary Reed (Caitlin Cohn) comprise the core of the shipboard story; Lady Jane (Jennifer Blood) is paying for her husband’s debts, while secondary characters, Abigail Greensborough and Mrs. Pickering/Rich Girl Whittington, played by Lisa Karlin and Brandi Knox, respectively, might receive a larger slice of the story to tell. The male good-hearted, but practical, Captain Adams (Quentin Oliver Lee) delivered strong additional performances as the Judge and Mr. Whittington. Rounding out the good and evil types among the crew, were the love interest, Marcus “Finn” Findley (Jordan Bolden), Zeek Cropper (Justin R. G. Holcomb), who doubles as the constable, and Lt. Adams/Harold Helsby (Trevor St. John-Gilbert). The cast were all at home in the perilous period piece drama. The lead actors took us on a believable, affecting journey.
Finally, “Ladyship is an old story of class war with a new twist where women are the focus, and the play offers insights into the long, dark history of sexual violence punctuated by occasional welcome bits of humor. These women mean to survive. There is grimness in their fate, but there is also hope from escape from England’s dire conditions.
Kudos to the Good sisters for finding and telling these stories. Kudos to the production team for developing staging, lighting, and sound to create scenes of town and the open sea. The musical trio accompanying the performance provides a delightfully bigger sound than we might expect in a festival production.
“Ladyship” runs at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42ndSt., New York City, on July 10 at 8 pm, July 12 at 5 pm, July 13 at 1 pm, July 14 at 5 pm and 9 pm.
© Copyright by Deborah S. Greenhut, July 12, 2019.
Photos provided by Kampfire PR/Marketing. Photo credits: Russ Rowland