New musical The Famished Land has been written under extraordinary circumstances. Based on the novel from Elizabeth Byrd, the music has been composed by Jennifer Whyte whilst her father Robin wrote the lyrics. Robin has sadly been taken ill, leading to this showcase performance to see their collaborative work realised on the stage.
Set during the Irish famine of 1845, the plot focuses on 16 year old Moira McFlaherty (Zoe Rainey) and her struggles to survive and look after her family. At its core is a love story between her and Liam (Matthew Gent), a typical construct in an otherwise untapped setting. Recreating the whole novel is an ambitious undertaking and, with its grand score, The Famished Land feels almost like an Irish Les Miserables. The tragic events are certainly worthy of such high drama, with one particular twist in the second act being especially horrifying. After Moira’s climactic solo towards the end however, the final scenes feel somewhat deflating with an almost tacked on happy ending.
It’s the music that truly impresses, though. Performed with full orchestra, the picturesque beauty of the sweeping score was absolutely apparent despite this being a showcase production. Folk melodies, Irish whistle, harp and guitar, plus lush vocal harmonies, provide a gloriously evocative image of Ireland, where the narrative depicts a much darker picture. The only criticism is that with so much underscore throughout the show, it gives little opportunity for the drama to breathe during the often short scenes, the narrative teetering into melodrama on occasion. The singing, too, was excellent, particularly from Rainey and Gent in the lead roles. Mostly, it was the choruses that impressed with a gorgeously full sound – the ensemble number that opened the second act, led wonderfully by Emma Harrold, was a stunning representation of the show’s potential.
And it’s this potential that was clearly visible from this performance, even with some negatives. The staging was minimal, though the discreet projections and use of a wooden table were inventive; the overuse of dry ice was unnecessary; and the reliance on scripts was incredibly distracting – especially as some cast members had clearly learnt their lines and others had not.
Yet this is understandable when the cast had a matter of days to put the show together. The cast and orchestra delivered an inspiring performance of a show that deserves far more than a one-night affair.