Intentional or not, there is a bittersweet resonance between the events of Voyage and the situation right now. Sure, there’s almost 200 years between these two points in time, but as Australian residents remain indefinitely grounded and (for many) cut off from overseas friends and family, you can’t help but relate to the women in Voyage who immigrated to Australia not knowing if they’d ever again see those they’d left behind.
Directed by Ruby Rees, Voyage is an ambitious endeavour, weaving academic research on the lives of early Australian women immigrants into a new folk musical. And the music is one of the highlights of the new production. A team of three musicians – Kylie Morrigan on fiddle, Penelope Swales on whistle and Voyage writer Helen Begley on guitar – are responsible for the 17 folk songs that track the perilous journey from 1830s England to Botany Bay, Australia. Sat on the side of the performance space at Fortyfivedownstairs, they’re very much a part of the musical, an omnipresent trio of tavern musicians playing songs but also striking up atmosphere, generating everything from roiling seas to washroom noise.
Accompanying the music, of course, is singing, courtesy of Carly Ellis and Penny Larkins, who also have the task of rendering Voyage's 13 characters. For the most part, it’s a task they both achieve without incident, switching between accents, mannerisms and the odd prop to differentiate roles. However, while Voyage flits between asides, the core, linear thread of the production focuses on the journey of two women – Elizabeth Wade (Larkins) and the otherwise unnamed The Good Girl (Ellis).
Though tight friends, these characters feel like polar opposites, presenting us with two of the main reasons women from the time chose to leave everything behind for a land they knew little of. Ellis’s The Good Girl is a young Irish woman with no living family and few prospects in London, naive and hopeful, pious and hardworking, who ruefully leaves Britain in the hope that it’ll be better in Australia. Larkins’ Elizabeth Wade is a headstrong, streetwise woman who likes a drink, a tumble and is only too glad to be rid of England and its rigid class structure, admitting she would likely have been transported if she hadn’t left of her own volition. The Good Girl appears to be looking for a better version of life in England, while Elizabeth Wade is looking for freedom from it.
In the 1830s, Britain encouraged women of marrying age – that is 16 to 30 – to immigrate to NSW by paying for their travel. While Voyage is a performance of resilience, hope and mateship in an unfamiliar land, it’s by definition still a story about the colonisation of Australia, from the perspective of the colonisers. That doesn’t mean the story can’t be told, but it does mean it needs to be told with acknowledgement, and it’s great to see Begley and the cast not only engaging an Indigenous consultant (Nola Turner-Jensen) but also reiterating this acknowledgement prior to the show’s commencement.
Voyage could be described as a sung-through musical, and both Larkins and Ellis excel vocally. With only a fiddle, guitar and whistle, there’s nowhere to hide, but both performers nail the 17 songs with clarity and an earthiness that suits the setting. Between the exposed brick walls of Fortyfivedownstairs, the rough timber floors, wooden crates and pewter mugs, Voyage really does teleport you to early colonial Sydney, and the decision to use lighting to separate England from Australia is a clever one.
With song such an important medium in Voyage, however, the occasional unintelligible lyric is frustrating for those trying to follow the narrative, though that could be attributed to archaic phrasing and accents. During our performance, there seemed to be a slight slip in Ellis’s performance, which might have gone unnoticed if not for possibly a premature show stop query from the tech. Though jarring, to Ellis’s and the cast’s credit, they plastered over the break in character with aplomb.
While we wish more attention had been given to the primary narrative, Voyage is a story that will resonate with many Australians, whether through a familial connection or personal experience of immigration.