June 22, 2018

Songs for Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas

Created by Cameron Goodall, Quincy Grant, Andy Packer,
with Gareth Chin.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
June 20.

This captivating song cycle, from Adelaide based theatre company Slingsby, begins with a children’s book given to a boy by his grandmother. It is called An Island in Time and it is the factual story of geological land formation from volcanic upheaval through, by natural selection, to the establishment of flora and fauna, habitat and ecological diversity.

Performed by five on-stage musicians, Songs for Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas is dedicated not to recent human settlement but a process of millions of years. First the molten lava cools, then comes the first grass seed, the detritus of driftwood and gradually birds, animals, and a proliferation of plant species. Those who have come across the seas are essential life-forms brought by wind and current, by accident and by design.

Slingsby director Andy Packer has, once again, shown his admirable knack for getting all his production ducks in a row. He has gathered together an impressively creative group of artists and fashioned a splendidly balanced production. Many of these collaborators have featured before with Slingsby/Packer projects (including on the recent Helpmann award nominee Emil and the Detectives) and here again they have blended to memorable effect.

Firstly, the music. The songs and score, composed by Cameron Goodall and Quincy Grant, with contributions from Gareth Chin Satomi Ohnishi and Leah Flanagan incorporate an immediately appealing range of styles and genres. The opening sequence – crashing seas, bursting volcanoes, the establishment of a new landmass – is heralded by rich washes of prog-rock synths from Quincy Grant, supported by cascades of drumming and percussion from the versatile Satomi Ohnishi. Leah Flanagan follows with the plaintive Come to Me – the island’s call to new inhabitants – and then joins in sweet harmonies with Cam Goodall for The Whispering Grasses.

The arrangements are rich and varied. Grant features on keyboards and saxophone, Gareth Chin on accordion and piano, Goodall on electric, acoustic and 12 string guitars. All at various times use amplified ukeleles for extra effects. Over more than a dozen original songs, the narrative gathers detail and texture. The Driftwood is performed in upbeat bluegrass style with Goodall on banjo and he and in Flanagan in close harmony. Leah Flanagan also soars vocally with the Wandering Albatross while Goodall describes the lonely fate of The Adolescent Seal with poignant effect.

For The Burrowing Bird, the musicians shift to a jaunty jug band syncopation, Ohnishi on cow-bell and other percussion and The Dung Beetle, with Goodall on solo piano, has an almost Flanders and Swann whimsy to it. All kinds of echoes can be found, each piquing our attention and enjoyment – shades of Nick Cave and Kurt Weill in the Apex Predator song , Tooth and Claw, for instance, and the Brel-like cadence in Flanagan’s lovely lament for the unlucky ones, Those Who Did Not Make it Here.

And the lyrics are witty, reflective and often trenchantly sharp – not least in the final couplet of Tooth and Claw– “We only live to see tomorrow/ Through some other creature’s sorrow.” There are many songs which stand out – and with these musicians they are presented at their melodic best. Seven Petal Flowers – a duet between Leah Flanagan and Cam Goodall, who also features on 12 string guitar – has an air of wistful Celtic ballad, a reverie soon broken by the mayhem of the following song The People, a caustic reminder of the various stages of grief caused by invasive, plundering settlement.

This production is also visually delightful. Designer Ailsa Paterson has used clusters of hanging drapes on which Thom Buchanan’s vibrant artwork is projected. His water colour sketches of landscape, seals, birds and the constantly roiling sea are kept in fascinating animation by Visual Systems Engineer Freddy Komp, Motion Graphics Designer Beck Bogert and Technical Designer Chris Petridis. The lighting from Geoff Cobham (newly appointed Artistic Director for Patch Theatre) is especially delectable and effortlessly complements the scenic experience.

Two performances are not enough for this excellent production which has arrived fully formed and ready to tour. Songs For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas is accessible to all ages and speaks urgently to our sense of stewardship of the environment, not with fearful hectoring, but by celebrating the marvels of our biosphere.

Four and a Half Stars.

Commissioned for Daily Review.

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