When Nelson Gardner is pushed to describe Ned: A New Australian Musical, in which he plays Ned Kelly, he comes up with an interesting description. “I don’t really want to compare it to another show, but if I did I’d say it’s an Irish-Australian Les Mis,” he says. “There are hints of Celtic styles in the music but the production has got that real epic scope to it.”
With its guns, armor, Aussie humour, and a twenty-something-piece orchestra, it will open on Friday May 22 at the state-of-the-art Ulumbarra Theatre, newly constructed inside Bendigo’s old Sandhurst Gaol. On the Ulumbarra’s stage—which is nearly the same size as that of Melbourne’s State Theatre—Ned’s drama certainly has the space necessary to show off its epic proportions.
Gardner, a Bendigo native and 2011 graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts Bachelor of Music Theatre course, has been involved in the play throughout the years of its work-shopping process. “I’ve always been playing Ned and contributing bits of the character and different pieces of dialogue,” he says. “I still had to audition like everyone else, of course, and I wanted to be involved in the show in any capacity, really. I didn’t have my hopes completely up there, though, and I probably would have been pretty disappointed to have Ned taken away from me. I’ve become very close to the character.”
Coming from a large Irish-Australian family himself—Gardner is one of five brothers—he says he found the story told by the musical is “a lot more interesting than I remember from primary school.”
What he particularly enjoys about the role is that it presents Ned as an ambiguous character. “I know a lot of versions of Ned Kelly show him as an untarnished hero or a great leader,” says Gardner, “but the reason I like this version so much is because they don’t shy away from the fact that he was essentially a ratbag growing up. He did definitely shoot policemen, there’s no denying that. But he’d grown up in low socio-economic surroundings, and with that you don’t get a lot of opportunities presented to you.”
Gardner also acknowledges the sensitivities of relatives of the police officers who were killed. “Descendants of those police officers feel very strongly that Ned Kelly was a criminal and that he should not be celebrated in any way.” So the musical establishes Ned’s complexities and encourages the audience to make up their own minds.
Bendigo is now an exciting hub of regional arts activity, the new theatre providing opportunities for further cultural enrichment of the community. Creating this show, for instance, brought together Bendigo locals with high-calibre personnel who had already made a considerable mark in musical theatre.
There is Gardner, of course, pleased to be back home for this production. Once a young kid who “wanted to be an actor before I even really knew what it meant,” he has now played roles such as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast for the Adam Lowe Group, and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, a Citizen Theatre production in the Como House ballroom in South Yarra.
Then there is Anna Lyon, Bendigo paediatrician and long-term participant in the town’s theatre companies, who has written the book for Ned. She collaborated with the versatile Marc McIntyre (who also designed the sets), a VCA graduate who has worked throughout Australia and—important in this context—has significant performance credits in Bendigo productions.
Adam Lyon, another VCA graduate—Bachelor of Music (Opera)—wrote the music and lyrics. His performance career includes Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables, and King Kong the Musical, in which he played Carl Denham. Lyon is also director of Groaning Dam Productions, the company presenting Ned. Its goal is “to create and produce fresh musical theatre with a uniquely Australian flavour”.
This goal is well served by multi-award winning director Gary Young, who brings long and varied musical theatre experience to Ned. His resume ranges from directing two national tours for Hi 5, to directing Singing in the Rain for The Production Company and acting as resident director for the original Australian productions of Miss Saigon and Les Miserables. In addition, he has already demonstrated his own flair for fresh Australian musical theatre. In 2002, he and composer Paul Keenan won the inaugural Pratt Prize for Music Theatre with Sideshow Alley.
So what can people expect from Ned? Well, says Gardner, “it’s kind of an action musical and it’s actually really, really fun. And you could not get a better theatre venue for Ned, because as soon as you walk in, you see a lot of the old gaol’s original stonework. The original gallows are still there above you. There’s a really authentic vibe going on there.”
Ned opens on Friday May 22 and closes on Sunday May 31 2015.
Bookings: phone the box office 03 5434 6100 or book online at Capital Venues and Events.
While you’re there: Imagining Ned, an exhibition that includes work by a range of Australian artists, is currently showing at the Bendigo Art Gallery.