My Land’s Shore continues at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, London until 26 February.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
This new musical by Christopher J Orton (music and lyrics) and Robert Gould (book and lyrics), based on a true story, is well-worth a visit.
From the powerful opening number, ‘Burning’, this production captures the audience and takes it on an emotional journey of hardship, injustice, conflict, heartbreak and moral dilemmas.
My Land’s Shore is about the Merthyr Rising of 1831. Due to redundancies and savage pay cuts which resulted in great hardship, the miners organised themselves into a Political Union which campaigned for reform and took to the street to demonstrate.
The High Sheriff called in the army and blood was shed. Rioters and soldiers lost their lives or were injured and arrests were made. Lewis Lewis and Richard Lewis (also known as Dic Penderyn), along with others, were arrested and charged – Lewis with inciting the riot and Richard with stabbing a soldier. They were both sentenced to death by hanging.
Following an appeal Lewis’ sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia. However, despite the fact that thousands signed a petition supporting Richard’s innocent plea, the harsh Home Secretary Lord Melbourne decreed that his death sentence remained.
Richard Lewis became a martyr throughout Wales and his execution only served to deepen the bitter relationship between the workers and the establishment and strengthen the trade union movement.
The book sticks pretty much to the facts regarding the uprising. It also explores various relationships – Richard Lewis (Aidan Banyard) and his new bride, single mother Angharad (Rebecca Gilliland); Lewis Lewis (Michael Rees) and his wife Rebecca (Kira Morsley); the Minister Morgan (Aled Powys Williams) and his wife Elizabeth (Emma Hickey); the ironmasters William Crawshay (Andrew Truluck) and Josiah Guest (Hywel Dowsell), and the children Jonathan and Megan, delightfully played by Samuel Bailey and Hollie Evans.
The 18-strong cast is impressive with powerful voices. It is encouraging to see that several of them are making their professional debuts in this production, no doubt names to look out for in the future.
Banyard is very watchable and gives an outstanding performance, as does Rees as the main riot instigator. Taite-Elliot Drew stands out as the High Sheriff and Raymond Walsh shines when performing ‘Air For a Wise Celtic Fool’. There is no weak link in this ensemble group, all the artists deserved the standing ovation they received.
The staging of this show is a credit to director Brendan Matthew. The set, designed by Joana Dias, is wonderfully effective and Charlotte Tooth deserves an award for her choreography – to create what she does with so many actors in such a confined space is nothing short of brilliant. An excellent six-piece band is led by musical director Aaron Clingham.
There are a few things that should be addressed: the female speaking voices need to be stronger; there are a couple of songs too many and a bit more narrative wouldn’t go amiss; the lighting could have been better and the recorded voiceover at Richard’s trial is a big mistake.
The director’s programme notes refer to a description of My Land’s Shore as ‘The Welsh Les Mis’, and herein lies the main problem.
This show deserves to transfer to a bigger venue but there may be unfavourable comparisons, especially in terms of style and music. Sadly, the production’s long-term future may probably suffer because of it.