My Land's Shore
Music and lyrics by Christopher J Orton, book and lyrics by Robert Gould
All Star Productions
Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre
In 1832, at a time of lowered wages and wide unemployment, demonstrating ironworkers and miners in South Wales dipped a cloth in pig’s blood and used it as a banner. Behind it 7,000, or some say 10,000, workers marched in protest demanding, as one song in this new musical puts it, “bread, a vote, a say!”
After days of demonstration, High Sheriff Richard Jenkins called in the military and after the reading of the Riot Act soldiers of the Scots Highlanders opened fire on the crowd killing dozens with hundreds wounded.
Arrests followed and 26 were put on trial for taking part in a rebellion and two sentenced to death. It is on the story of those two men and their families that My Land’s Shore is centred.
Earlier workshops and concert stagings have seen it called a Welsh Les Miz and you can see why. It has that show’s populist feeling, even similar surges in musical phrasing and it is set at the same time (one month before the Paris revolt in Victor Hugo’s story), but this is more firmly rooted in political history rather than the romance that musical has become.
Joana Dias’s set of wooden frames and rostrums hung with multiple doors suggests both subterranean pit passages and huddled housing while its upper edges are coated with the grass of hillsides. The play opens with pit men smeared with coal dust pushing wagons through near darkness while above them ironmasters Joseph Guest (Hywel Dowsell) of Dowlais ironworks urges William Crawshay (Andrew Truluck) of Cyfarthfa to cut wages further.
The story is told mainly through the family of Lewis Lewis (Michael Rees), leader of the workers, his sister Elizabeth (Emma Hickey) and her chapel minister husband Morgan (Aled Powys Williams) and that of Richard Lewis (Aidan Banyard) and his wife Angharad (Rebecca Gilliland).
Richard, who joined the demonstration, was accused of wounding a soldier and executed for it, though innocent, becoming a martyr of the workers’ movement.
In some ways it is a rather old fashioned telling with work choruses and a drinking song, a bossy neighbour, the deaths of children to tug at the heartstrings. There’s not much real politics in it but lots of emotion and, though the leading characters have strong emotion, there is not much characterisation in the writing.
Fortunately, it has a cast that gives them personality. They play it to the hilt for feeling and give enormous energy and drive to a production in which director Brendan Matthew deftly moves the action between locations in a way that adds excitement and gives the feel of a close community.
There is lively choreography by assistant director Charlotte Tooth, bursting with emotion, expressing things in dance rather than developing as part of the action and a couple of times a tad too long for its place in the story. Some of the subsidiary stories also stretch out things. They do give a great sense of community but, because of the concentration on a few interlocking families, this feels extremely localised: there is no sense of the involvement of working people across the whole region.
See it for its enthusiasm, for its passion, its warmth, rich and spirited music and the way it honours those to whose sacrifice we owe our rights and freedoms.
While the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Manchester’s Peterloo are well known in our political history, the Merthyr Rising is something of which few outside the region are aware. It is good to have this musical commemoration. Its ending is perhaps more hopeful than it should be for we know what later power brokers did to Britain’s mines and steelworks. Billy Elliot could be a sort of sequel to this story, though it’s not set in Wales.