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Vandemonian Lags

26 June 2014 | 5:26 pm | Matty Hendrix

"RocKwiz's Brian Nankervis and You Am I frontman Tim Rogers were great anchors, contextualising proceedings as the pompous narrators with their own brand of charm and swagger."

Whether it is the lack of convict stock in South Australia, the steep ticket price, poor promotion, or its inclusion as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, the turnout for Vandemonian Lags was as criminal as some of the subjects.

An all-star crew of Mick Thomas, Tim Rogers, Jeff Lang, Ben Salter, Darren Hanlon, Van Walker, Liz Stringer and Sal Kimber alone should have been enough to get bums on seats, but organisers were forced to change the seating plan to “intimate mode” and conduct a last minute ticket fire sale (an all-too familiar trend in Adelaide which is testing the tolerance of full-fee paying fans).

But it was going to take more than some petty grievance to detract from this epic and riveting history lesson of our penal past, a multimedia theatrical production which was in equal parts moving, dark, joyous and humorous. First premiered at Tasmania's Dark Mofo festival last year, the production has been a labour of love for brothers Steve and Mick “Weddings, Parties, Anything” Thomas who have vividly brought to life 17 tales from the world heritage-listed records of the 73,000 convict men, women and children transported to Van Diemen's Land between 1803 and 1853.

One of their major masterstrokes is the cast. The individual talents of the musicians who took to the onstage docks to share the characters' stories were matched only by their compatibility. Their interactions and blend of vocal harmonies – particularly on the eponymous opening number - took the show to the next level and it's a national shame most of these artists are not household names.

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The acoustically excellent venue was the perfect place for the underrated Salter (of solo and Gin Club, Giants Of Science, Wilson Pickers fame) to show off his striking vocal range and the raw emotion emanating from the well travelled workhorse's voice was palpable. His song It's Dogherty was yet another fine example of his lyrical craftsmanship.

Stringer was one of the show's surprise packets with her versatility as she flitted between the banjo, guitar and keys. Her rich, soulful tones shone in the harmonies before she took centre stage with Tasmanian troubadour Van Walker (who was born for this show) on the stunning The Convict's Girl And The Canton Man.

What he lacks in height, Jeff Lang makes up for in extreme talent and his flourishes on guitar and dobro set the soundtrack's mood throughout. His duelling with accordionist Mark “Squeezebox Wally” Wallace on traditional tune Van Diemen's Land was among the highlights of the night.

RocKwiz's Brian Nankervis and You Am I frontman Tim Rogers were great anchors, contextualising proceedings as the pompous narrators with their own brand of charm and swagger. Rogers also showed he hadn't lost his musical chops, reprising his more regular larrikin rock star role on an up-tempo song about a brothel operating out of Launceston Hospital (telling Mick Thomas as he rushed the stage and stole the mike, "What does a folkie know about hookers? I'll take this one" in one of the show's great, scripted comedic moments.)

But the stars here were the Thomases. While he sometimes took a backseat to his crew, Mick cemented his reputation as one the nation's – if not, the – best musical raconteurs. With the assistance of his brother's engaging videos, they gloriously capture the misery, triumph, and toil of Tasmania's first settlers.