The music of LadyShip by composers and twin sisters Linda Good and Laura Good of the alternative pop band The Twigs, is inspired by a mix of melodies of the 18th century, classical music and modern pop styles.
From the authentic fiddle of a Scottish Reel, to the contemporary pop love duet of Ready to Begin, the musical’s songs reflect the wide range of emotions felt by the women who were shipped to Australia. LadyShip tells their stories through a new lens, as they struggle combating hunger, sexual harassment, ocean storms and countless other challenges to survive one of the toughest sea journeys to date.
Setting: London, England 1789
Poor, Irish farm girls and teenage sisters Mary and Alice Reed are in a boarding house, starving, short on rent and wondering how they will survive. They lament how factories have replaced workers and left them with no jobs or marriage prospects (“The System”). As a last resort, they put on their best clothes and make a plan to blend in with wealthy shoppers, while picking their pockets. On the same street, we meet an orphan, Kitty, who is falsely accused of stealing a rich girl’s doll. Mary, Alice and Kitty are arrested and thrown into an over-crowded jail full of poor, starving young women just like themselves. They learn how they are caught in a larger government plan to rid the streets of the poor by doling out punishments that severely outweigh the crimes (“The Bloody Code”), and at the same time save the failing colony of Australia by providing free convict labor. Alice and Mary realize their dire circumstances and how far they are from their hopes and dreams (“A Way Out”). The next morning the sisters are tried in court and are unfairly sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. Kitty gets an even harsher sentence of death by hanging, but pleads benefit of clergy and her sentence is commuted to the same fate as Mary and Alice (“Seven Years”).
Days later, on the River Thames, the female convicts are to be transported to Australia and are loaded onto the ship, The Lady Helena. Upon hearing how poorly the colony in Sydney is faring, the pressure is on Captain Josiah Adams. Aided by his nephew Lieutenant Adams and Deck Officer Zeke Cropper, the Second Fleet trip of The Lady Helena must succeed. Capt. Adams has to make sure the women arrive safely and alive, so they can be workers and wives to the male convicts already there. A mixed-race seaman named Finn catches the eye of Mary. We meet two more convicts: Abigail, a plump card sharper who has lived by her wits, and Lady Jane Sharp, a disgraced woman of high society whose fortune was gambled away by her now dead husband. The convicts are shown to their quarters: dark, damp jail cells in the cold and foul bottom of the ship. The women despair about how they will endure the ten-month journey in such horrid conditions, as Kitty imagines a better future (“So Many Stars”).
As the ship sets sail, the seamen can’t believe their luck: their ship is full of women who they presumptuously assume will appease them (“Pour Another Rum for the Sailor”). Lt. Adams delivers a list of austere rules to the women which Alice reads aloud to her fellow convicts. An illiterate convict enlists Alice’s help in writing a letter home. She writes that after two weeks, the female convicts are still getting seasick and growing more and more emaciated (“All We Have Left”). Abigail reminds them that there is a way to get more food and warmth by becoming “temporary wives” to the seaman, an old seafaring custom (“Only The Strong Survive”). Knowing they will be allowed on deck for Easter service, Mary, Alice, and Jane contemplate if they can do as Abigail suggests.
After Easter service on deck, the women and men are allowed to socialize and get fresh air (“Scottish Reel”). After much rum and dancing, some of the women pair off with seamen; Mary chooses Finn and they begin to fall in love. Finn tells her of his plan to run away and find his mother in Rio, but can’t imagine a life with Mary (“Ready to Begin”).
A few months later, the ship reaches its first port of call, Rio de Janeiro, where they will resupply and trade goods for a one month. Because the convicts are not allowed off the ship, Abigail suggests the women take their “temporary wife” status one step further, by making money operating as a brothel on board while in port. Jane and Kitty hope to use their sewing skills instead, while Alice ponders what to do in this city of gold (“Golden Opportunity”). As Finn prepares to run away with Mary, she tells him she is pregnant.
After a month in Rio, everyone feels a brief respite from the misery of ship-life, having bathed, now wearing clean clothes and counting the money from their schemes. During their last night in port, Alice can’t find Mary and fears she has run off with Finn. Lady Jane graciously thanks the Captain for arranging her sewing enterprise and the money she and Kitty earned from it, but needs to know what the future will be -- not only for her, but for the convicts and their unborn children once they are arrive at the new colony. The captain regretfully tells her that most likely the babies will be taken away once they land, so the women can work unencumbered. Alice overhears this and fears for Mary and her baby. She tries to warn Mary, but hesitates, hoping she can change the outcome. The sisters recall happier days as children by the sea, and vow to stay together (“No Matter Where We’re Bound”).
Alice confronts Finn about what his plans are for Mary and their unborn child. Finn tries to reassure her while Zeke accuses Finn of also being with Alice. Alice defends herself and Zeke vows to physically punish her on deck the next day in front of everyone. Alice’s defiance has emboldened her to suggest to the women to fight back against their oppression in body and in mind (“I’m Done”).
Zeke’s superstition that women are bad luck on a ship seems to be coming true. As the seas get rough from an approaching storm, Zeke’s dark mood drunkenly overtakes him, and he feels that women are to blame (“Women Are Wicked”). As the storm overtakes the ship, Zeke locks Kitty in a closet so he can force himself on Lady Jane. Alice and Mary see his violent attack and as they try to pull him off Lady Jane, he throws Mary to the ground. Alice is enraged and tries to push him away from Jane. Lightning flashes and Alice pushes Zeke overboard.
Finn and The Captain witness the harrowing event and run to Mary and Lady Jane, while Kitty bursts out of the closet. Alice is shocked at what she has just done. As the storm subsides, the Captain declares it self-defense. Mary, Alice, Jane and the Captain, realize how love anchors them in this harsh world (“I Need an Anchor”).
Mary’s fall causes her to go into labor and Jane yells for Abigail’s help. Abigail injures her ankle while climbing up the ladder and yells for Alice to deliver the baby. Alice and the other women encircle Mary, encouraging her to summon her inner strength (“Dig Deep”). Mary almost dies in childbirth, but survives as she and Finn cradle their new baby girl (“Lullaby”). As they drift off to sleep, Alice picks up her baby niece and vows to keep her and her mother safe and together. (“I’ll Find a Way”). As dawn rises, the ship approaches Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, Australia and the woman convicts steel themselves for what lies ahead in this new land (“A New Day”).