Can it be really be 26 years since Phil saw the original Royal Court production of Our Country’s Good after it transferred to the Garrick Theatre? Sadly it is. How time flies.
But time must have stood still for convicts exported to Australia in the 18th century. It took 8 and a half months in those days. Mind you it probably won’t stop Phil whingeing about the food, the lack of space or his fellow passengers next time he takes off on a long haul flight.
This production of Timberlake Wertenbaker‘s version of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker opens with the Olivier’s drum revolve rising and revealing the prisoners cramped in the bowels of the ship presumably without a change of clothing or deodorant stick for their enforced journey. The National’s fabric-distressing and grime-smearing departments must have been putting in some long hours recently.
They’re the first colony at Botany Bay and one of the more liberal bright sparks among the officers in charge has the idea that some form of rehabilitation might come through the transformative power of theatre rather than clean clothing, a toothbrush and some Right Guard. “Theatre is an expression of civilisation” apparently. Who knew? So a production of Farquhar‘s The Recruiting Officer is mooted starring the convicts. Haven’t they already suffered enough?
With only two copies of the play’s text, a would-be Sir Trevor Nunn, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, RM (Jason Hughes), has the task of knocking the rag bag of would-be luvvies into some sort of a performing troupe whilst coping with the general harsh brutalities of lashings, hangings, brawling and illiteracy among the cast.
Nadia Fall’s production has some sluggish moments and its nearly 3 hour running time is extended by musical interludes (rather good music by Cerys Matthews) but the story is largely engrossing and you do begin to care about about the convicts’ fate largely because the cast is excellent in defining very individual characters.
Phil was particularly taken by the extreme suffering displayed by Jodie McNee‘s Liz Morden and Caoilfhionn Dunne‘s composed and stoic Mary Brenham but he would loved to have seen more of Debra Penny’s boil-ridden, err, Shitty Meg, a name that will forever be on Andrew’s lips from now on.
And Phil was thrilled when he thought he heard the words ‘rantum-scantum’ (copulating) for the second time in a week. He’d never heard the term before David Eldridge‘s hugely enjoyable The Scandalous Lady W on telly recently. Both are set in the late 18th century. Time for a revival of the expression perhaps?
Some comedy is wrought from the appalling situation, especially in the rehearsal scenes, which must be even more chaotic than those for the delayed “fusion musical” Dusty. “The redemptive power of art” eventually adds the slightest glimmer of hope at the end.
Our Country’s good enough. Even for Andrew.
The only name we recognised in the cast (as we didn’t realise Hughes was in This Life or more importantly Midsomer Murders at the time) was Paul Kaye (as Midshipman Harry Brewer RN), as far a cry from his alter ego Dennis Pennis as you can imagine. If you don’t remember his shock celebrity interviews here’s a few of the best.