Reviewed by Jenny Bray
Our Country’s Good tells the true story of a group of British convicts and marines sent on an eight-month boat trip to Australia to form the first penal colony there in the 1780’s. Once there they have limited supplies and encounter a host of other issues. It was written by Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988, based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, and this version is directed by Fiona Buffini.
This production was put on by Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of 6 different theatres, who have at least 50% of their cast as D/deaf* or disabled for all their productions, 60% for this production. They ensure that their productions are accessible for a wide variety of audiences and incorporate audio description, captioning and sign language throughout the show. Some characters only speak using British Sign Language. When they do, another actor speaks their lines.
It was performed at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. The Crucible is the newer theatre building in the city centre. It is well signposted and easy to get to and if you head to the Charles Street Q parks, just a short walk from the theatre, you can get the first hour free if you get a ticket from a member of the theatre staff. The kiosk is on the left as you walk in and there is a bar outside the theatre doors.
The show encompasses both comedy and drama. It begins with everyone still on the boat and a prisoner being lashed. Once they land the marines, in red coats, talk about what’s ahead of them and discuss whether prison should be to punish or to rehabilitate an individual, also stating that they mainly believe that criminals are born criminals and can’t be educated or cultured. Second Lieutenant Ralph (Tim Pritchett) believes differently and thinks it will be good for both the convicts and the marines for the convicts to put on a play entitled ‘The Recruiting Officer’ (George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy). He initially struggles to convince the other marines that it is a good idea, not least because it then takes them away from time they could be spending working.
Ralph casts the main female members for his play first and he ends up with a motley crew of convicts for all roles. The two main females, Mary (Sapphire Joy) and Liz (Gbemisola Ikumelo), don’t initially get on. The whole cast have only 2 copies of the play between them, which ends up working out fine as most of them are illiterate!
Once Liz gets in to her role, her rehearsal begins with her shouting her lines really loudly and really quickly, in contrast to Mary’s measured approach to it all and Sideway (Alex Nowak) completely and comically over acting his parts. Ralph has to gently talk them round to slowing down, calming down and acting it out as if they were the characters in the play.
In the second half of the play Liz is accused of stealing food but refuses to talk. Most of the marines are ready to convict her and hang her. However, when they are discussing her hanging they are convinced to hear her out, so ask her in front of them to say whether she did it or not. It was her word against an officer so the majority of them are convinced that she did it, even though the officer was drunk and doesn’t clearly recollect it.
On occasion, in between acts, an aboriginal shows his face (wearing just a loin cloth and some body paint!). When he speaks his parts his sign language looks like art and flows like dance on the stage. It shows how the English infiltrated his people including bringing infection. I think more could have been made of this aspect of the play though.
The production highlights the differences between the classes at that time and the expectations each had. Female prisoners were expected to have sex with the marines yet were classed as whores for doing so. Towards the end one prisoner chooses to go with a married officer and he asks to see her undressed as he’s not seen a woman like that before. She queries him not having seen his wife like that and he states that it wasn’t like that with her.
I really liked Gbemisola Ikumelo’s portrayal of Liz, which was feisty and rough yet also vulnerable on occasion. She spoke about how her own father had betrayed her and got her convicted of a crime that he had done himself.
Tom Dawze was a great Wisehammer, a human dictionary of meanings of words, at least A through to L, thanks to his Dad finding part of a dictionary in a house clearance he undertook. He helps some of the others to understand the words they are learning.
Sapphire Joy, who played Mary, worked really well as the slightly more educated convict, who went to school until the age of 10 and can read! She plays a great mix of coy and shy who then comes out of her shell towards the end.
The stage setting was a clever rustic setting of weathered boards on sand with bushes in the background. Various other scenery is either rolled on to the stage or drops down from the ceiling, including the marine’s tents. Although the convicts were dirty looking the setting looked quite picturesque, although made moodier looking by dim lighting.
I found the whole show very moving, not only because it was based on a true story but because of how captivating I found the sign language that was incorporated throughout. The theme of understanding inclusivity of the different ways the actors are communicating with the audience ran concurrently with that of the play themes of social inclusion and the convicts finding their voices and beginning to learn to get along a little better. It was both enchanting and educational at the same time.
*The term D/deaf is used to describe people who are Deaf (sign language users) and deaf (who are hard of hearing but who have English as their first language and may lipread and/or use hearing aids)
Tickets cost from £15 to £29 (booking fees may apply).
Our Country’s Good is at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from 12-19 May 2018, for more information or to book tickets visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.
Crucible Theatre, 55 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000