Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker is something of a modern classic, having already found its way onto GCSE syllabuses. It is easy to see why, as it brings together a lesson in history, an abundance of literary references and comprehensive debates on morality. Given the sweep of her play, Wertenbaker can perhaps be forgiven for creating slightly stereotypical characters, but it is those characters who create the drama and the chief flaw in Nadia Fall’s epic new production is that it takes them too long to emerge as distinct individuals. Perhaps they become dwarfed by the sheer grandeur of the staging in the opened-out Olivier – an orange terrain and a bright blue sky establish the Australian coastal setting to which a ship full of deported British convicts arrives in the late 18th Century. Their captors establish a brutal penal colony, watched over throughout by a lone Aborigine (Gary Wood), who is presumably wondering what on earth the tide has washed up. A few liberal-minded officers hit upon the idea of the prisoners putting on a performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer and both prisoners and officers proceed to find some sort of redemption through the power of theatre. This is stirring stuff, but, in early sequences when the chief protagonists remain a blur, neither the drama of the prisoners’ inhuman treatment nor the comedy of the chaotic rehearsals works as well as it should. Some trimming and speeding up of scenes could have helped things along in a first half that occasionally edges too close to being tedious, but, once the interval has passed, the strongest characters come into sharp focus and gut-wrenching drama ensues. Under the shadow of the noose, Peter Forbes’ Major Ross, a barbaric Scottish martinet, contrasts sharply with Jodie McNee’s Liz, a proud and defiant Scouser; Shalisha James-Davis’ Duckling, accustomed to selling her favours for an easier life, tears at the heartstrings when mourning the loss of the conscience-stricken midshipman (Paul Kaye) she had feigned to despise; and Ashley McGuire’s Dabby stays defiant in her belief that liberty is more important than the price that might have to be paid for it. The icing on this substantial cake is a wonderful score by Cerys Matthews, played by four musicians, including Josienne Clarke whose beautiful, clear vocals fill the Olivier’s large auditorium. This is a good production containing many things to cherish, but just a little tightening up here and there could have turned it into a great one.
Performance date: 25 August 2015