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Convict stories shared in colourful cabaret


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British convict Isaac Solomon should have just cut his losses and stayed hiding out in America after he managed to drug his jailers and escape England in 1827.

But after the furious police framed his wife Ann for theft and she was transported to Tasmania to serve her sentence, he decided to follow his love. Solomon, aka Ikey Mo, set up a tobacco shop in Hobart and the couple was reunited – for a time.

“Finally he got sprung,” says singer-storyteller Mick Thomas, director of the cabaret show Vandemonian Lags which will have its South Australian premiere during the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

“He was extradited from Hobart back to England, re-tried there and sent back to Tasmania. After all that, he and his wife split up.”

Solomon, who ran a gang of pickpockets and prostitutes in London and was rumoured to be the inspiration for the character of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, is just one of the Tasmanian convicts whose story is shared via song in Vandemonian Lags. The chorus of “Ikey Mo”, sung by You Am I frontman Tim Rogers in the show, is taken from a Hobart street song, the text of which was handed by an elderly man to Mick’s brother Steve when he was making a film about Fagin.

Vandemonian Lags combines dramatic narration by Rogers and Brian Nankervis (RocKwiz) with performances by folk, blues and rock artists including Rogers, Mick Thomas, Jeff Lang, Ben Salter, Darren Hanlon, Van Walker and Liz Stringer – plus a backing band and rear stage projections.

Written or adapted by Thomas and other songwriters, sometimes incorporating original source material such as poems published in Tasmanian newspapers, the songs are all inspired by specific convict stories.

“The big thing about this show is that it should be entertaining – not a dry history lesson but a lot of fun,” says Thomas, founder of Australian band Weddings Parties Anything.

“It’s just a rip-roaring story from beginning to end.”

The production has its origins in an interactive website called Founders & Survivors Storylines, which was created by Hobart-based writer and filmmaker Steve Thomas and features tales of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land from 1803 to 1853. Mick was brought on board to put music to some of the stories, and after the site launch, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) commissioned a cabaret production for its inaugural Dark Mofo festival.

Mick Thomas says there was an incredible amount of historical information available – including the BMI index of every prisoner who stepped ashore in Tasmania – despite the fact that numerous attempts had been made to destroy the files over the years because the convict heritage was seen as a “stain” on the state.

Many of the former convicts travelled across the Bass Strait to try to make new lives for themselves after serving sentences in Tasmania in the 19th century, but found they weren’t welcome on the mainland, with Victorians fearful they would over-run the boroughs. The Victorian Government even passed a law in 1852 to try to keep out the “scum”, many of whom were attracted by the gold rush.

“Some of them weren’t hardened criminals … some were just the children of criminals,” says Mick Thomas.

“Vandemonian Lags is a direct reference to what the Victorian people called the convicts coming across the strait … they were like the first boat people.”

He wanted the songs to humanise the stories uncovered, with different songwriters and performers helping convey the different voices. Some lyrics relate to love affairs or military experiences, while others recount a whole life journey.

The discovery that Launceston Hospital had been used as a brothel after-hours inspired a rock and roll song called “Sex Hospital”, while another song tells of a former poacher who was able to buy his passage home after striking gold in Victoria.

“His partner had waited 25 years for him and he had made enough money to buy the estate where he had been caught poaching,” Mick Thomas says.

“They went from a family who had nothing and then became landed gentry.”

Thomas says descendants of those whose stories are shared were among the audience when Vandemonian Lags premiered at Dark Mofo. And with so many Australians – including himself – having convict origins, the production has appeal for a much broader audience.

Ultimately, Mick says, it’s a story about the way people respond to the different challenges life throws at them.

“The reality of it is that Australia is populated with people whose ancestry dates back to transportation.

“As a social experiment, it’s pretty staggering that a country was created in that way.”

Vandemonian Lags will be performed at the Festival Theatre on June 18 as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

More Cabaret Festival stories:

Cabaret line-up: Not your usual suspects

All shook up for Elvis tribute

Carla Lippis to unleash her psychedelic cowgirl

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