For all the rousing songs and tear-jerking ballads belted out during Ned: A New Australian Musical, I couldn’t stop staring at hero Ned Kelly’s facial hair.
Held to Joshua McElroy’s chin with elastic, the fake bushy beard reminded me of the kind that creepy men in Father Christmas suits wear (albeit a darker version). Worse, it acted as a harbinger of things to come: the beard, like much of this show put on by new kids on the block Plush Duck Productions, is cheap, hackneyed and unintentionally comical.
Ned Kelly has graced the arts for decades: that Australia’s first ever feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), focused on the bushranger speaks volumes about how much the legend of Kelly has embedded itself into the national psyche. Since then, there have been books, more movies, musicals and Sidney Nolan’s celebrated paintings.
Ned: A New Australian Musical is the latest addition to the canon. Although, in this case, the title is misleading: Ned actually premiered three years ago in 2015 in Bendigo. The musical, with music and lyrics by Adam Lyon (primarily known for playing Carl Denham in King Kong), tracks Kelly’s life, from a boy in a poor Irish family struggling to make ends meet in Victoria to his infamous execution by hanging.
Saving Ned are some memorable, catchy and often touching songs. Namely, the solemn a cappella White Dove; My Son, performed by Kelly’s stoic mother (Jodie Harris) with heart-thumping love; Come Home; and the stirring ensemble Such is Life – based, of course, on Kelly’s now legendary, and much disputed, final words.
But with its cartoon villains, not to mention the wholehearted lionisation of Kelly as a hero, Ned badly misses the moral complexity of musicals such as Evita and Les Miserables, from which it borrows heavily. The clunky, heavy-handed dialogue (one scene featuring the young Kelly is particularly cringe-worthy) was so bad I felt like slapping my head against the seat in front of me.
Not helping is some wincingly poor acting and off-kilter dancing: one member of the cast forgot his moves, having to look at what the others were doing, and there were multiple points when lines were stumbled over. The songs, too, were often out of tune with many of the actors unable to conjure up the vocal power needed to do them justice. And while McElroy (terrible beard aside) looks the part of Kelly, with his lanky frame and nonchalant confidence, he doesn’t have the charisma – or, since this is a musical, the voice – to convince us he could lead a gang.
Casual oversights by the director and choreographer, Miranda Middleton, add to the impression that this is a high school production masquerading as professional theatre. When one of the gang dresses up as a woman in disguise, he leaves his trousers on, poking out the bottom; in a dance scene in the pub, the cast quaff beer while simultaneously throwing the cups upside down as if there was no liquid inside. Plush Duck is an emerging independent theatre company, with all the challenges that entails. But when Kelly’s sisters divvy up food to give to their brother in hiding they use what looks like mass-produced Woolies bread rolls – a loaf, surely, would have cost no more and been more appropriate? Even the program had major typos, complete with corrections scribbled in biro.
With its strong songs, Ned, in the right hands and with a reworking of the script, could make headway. But the main thrust of the plot – namely, Bad copper chases Good outlaw – means it misses out on showing us something far more interesting: a portrait of a flawed, problematic man. As the journalist Martin Flanagan once wrote: “What makes Ned a legend is not that everyone sees him the same – it’s that everyone sees him.”
In this case, even with said beard in tow, it really would be better if we didn’t.
• Ned: A New Australian Musical by Plush Duck Productions is showing at the New Theatre, Newtown, until 22 December
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