Photos – Kerry Brown
Born in Australia to Irish immigrant parents, Ned Kelly may have started out an innocent little boy like any other, but he was destined for a life of crime. The poor example set by his father’s run-ins with the police and eventual death whilst incarcerated, left unmeasurable emotional and economic scars on the family, and a huge responsibility on a 12 year-old Ned, who took on the role of head of the family.
Inevitably Ned embarked on his own journey of hard knocks and a life riddled with misdemeanours, theft and brawls with the police. Forced into hiding when his mother was accused of attempted murder of a local cop, Kelly and his gang shot and killed three policemen, thus opening up the doors to more criminal acts, such as armed robberies, and more murder. Ned Kelly was eventually sentenced to death by hanging for his crimes.
Even before his execution, Kelly had earned notoriety in Australia, and today, he is still one of the most fascinating and even revered characters in our history. Much like the Wild West’s controversial, yet admired, Jesse James (also of Irish heritage), he has been morphed into a sort of Robin Hood personality and has inspired countless books, biographies and films.
Bendigo has dedicated this Autumn to Ned Kelly; from the Imagining Ned exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery to NED – A New Australian Musical at the Ulumbarra Theatre, formerly the Sandhurst Gaol, the perfect place where to premiere a show about Australia’s “favourite” outlaw.
With a cast of 25 performers and an 18-strong orchestra, NED – A New Australian Musical, directed by Gary Young, takes the audience on a journey of Ned Kelly’s life from childhood into adulthood, focusing on some of his mishaps and eventual demise.
Opening with the end, as Ned is walked to the platform where he will be hanged, and then flashing into the past where his mother, Ellen (Penny Larkins) sings "Life's just a road, my son/a lonely road, my son," to the young Ned, who at this stage seems to be on the right path, having just saved a boy’s life and rewarded with a silk sash for bravery.
Teenage Ned (Nelson Gardner) – who looks a bit like a bearded Shia LaBeouf – is a loving son and dedicated brother, who steps in to take care of the family when his father is hauled away to jail. He is depicted as gregarious and happy-go-luck, but also easily enraged by the mere appearance of the power-hungry crooked police officers who bully the Kelly family and anyone else they feel like targeting.
Adam Lyons has composed a score which is modern and timeless at the same time, driving the story along seamlessly, with memorable numbers like Here’s to the Kellys, Dance! Drink! Love!, Timber and Steel, and a lovely a cappella White Dove.
I guess you could ask a dozen audience members, and each one will express a certain magnetism toward a particular character. I personally connected on an emotional level with Ellen Kelly, Ned’s mother, who stood by her son and children regardless of the circumstances. Even when she endured the hardships of incarceration over the period of two years, when the authorities were attempting to flush out Ned and his gang out of hiding. Throughout the show, Penny Larkins as Ellen Kelly, is a pillar of strength and the persistent conscience of sorts in Ned’s whirlwind life. She is constantly attempting to guide him toward the right path. If Ned was of this time period, Ellen Kelly would be labeled a “Tiger Mother.”
NED – A New Australian Musical is not without its faults by any means, but I don’t intend to focus on this. I found NED to be a delightful experience with much expected dramatic overtones, due to the seriousness of the topic, but it is nicely peppered throughout with lighthearted comedic relief and touching family moments as well, which allow for the notorious bushranger to be seen through a different lens. We are shown a more “human” Ned, who is no different from any normal man, who unfortunately took a bad turn along the road of life, and paid for it with his life. Ah, if he had only listened to his mum… but then we wouldn’t have a legend to talk about and write about now.
Although the overall story may be a bit more myth than fact – making Kelly out to be a chivalrous thief – I found the entire cast’s performance to be strong, engaging, and worth the trip to Bendigo to experience. Who knows, it just may become the next Disney animated film.
NED – A New Australian Musical
music and lyrics by Adam Lyon | book by Anna Lyon and Marc McIntyre
Director Gary Young
Venue: Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
Dates: May 21 – 30, 2015
Tickets: $65 – $30