Our Country’s Good**** (St James Theatre, 4 February 2013)

Posted: February 5, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

our country's goodAt its heart, this play argues that theatre is a medicine for many ills, capable of soothing troubled souls and giving meaning to abandoned lives. Based on Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel THE PLAYMAKER which drew from real events, it was first produced at the Royal Court in 1988 and won great acclaim. This new production with the same director is by the Out of Joint company in conjunction with the Octagon Theatre, Bolton. and it is well worth its transfer to the West End’s newest theatre. In the late 18th Century, a ship from Britain, carrying convicts destined for a penal colony, arrives on Australia’s shores after an eight month voyage. The Governor of the colony questions the value of the brutal regime that has become accepted and charges a young Lieutenant with staging a play in which the convicts will perform. The play within the play is George Farquhar’s THE RECRUITING OFFICER (seen at the Donmar only last year). At first the Lieutenant sees it as a career opportunity, but his enthusiasm for the project grows as he becomes more closely involved with his company. Whilst much of what follows is comic, as is inevitable when a group of novices fumble to learn new skills, we are never allowed to forget the injustices and brutality which form the backdrop to the story and we know that the threat of the gallows always looms. On this serious level, whilst more liberal attitudes prevail today, the debates in the play on finding the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation are still as relevant as at the time when the play is set. This is a vibrant and exciting production. The steeply-raked auditorium gives the effect of a bear pit which heightens the confrontational aspects of many of the scenes. The company of ten needs to double up on many roles and the inevitable downside of this is some confusion as to which character is appearing, a problem that is referred to humorously in the play’s text. However, on this occasion, the disadvantage is offset by creating the appearance of having a small and energetic company with limited resources, which is completely consistent with the themes of the play. Only Dominic Thorburn as the Lieutenant plays a single role throughout, but, of the others, Ian Redford deserves a mention for exceptional versatility. Also, the four women, Helen Bradbury, Laura Dos Santos, Lisa Kerr and Kathryn O’Reilly display resilience, dignity and tenderness to great effect. As a diversion, the writer occasionally indulges herself with cutting theatrical in-jokes, particularly at the expense of actors, but the balance between the comic and the dramatic is effective and switches of mood are handled very adeptly. Overall, the play is funny, disturbing, moving and, most endearingly, it is a strong affirmation of the power of theatre. Highly recommended

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