Reviewed by Nigel Chester
Nottingham Playhouse once again delivered a triumph of theatre. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was delivered by Ramps on the Moon, launched in 2016, it puts D/deaf and disabled performers and creative staff at the heart of their work.
The Australian author Thomas Keneally had his novel “The Playmaker” published in 1987, the following year, Timberlake Wertenbaker adapted the novel into the play Our Country’s Good. This is a set text for A level English literature as well as a comparison text for GCSE theatre studies.
We settled into the auditorium and there was a buzz of excitement, the stage was before us, a wooden platform, sand and blue sky. Opening with writhing bodies in front of us, these were convicts being transported to Australia in the 1780s, there is no dignity in transportation.
The play is set in the embryonic Sydney, a prison camp for inmates and the marines guarding them, both of them hungry both are homesick, however, the social chasm between them means that the reality is that we have slaves and we have masters and see cruelty of an unimaginable level.
There are many stand-out characters in this play, on both sides of the divide, from the Governor-in-chief Captain Arthur Phillips (Kieron Jecchinis) to the hangman, Ketch (Fergus Rattigan). There are strong women, Liz Marden (Gbemisola Ikumelo) and weak men, Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Tim Pritchett), but all have their part to play in shaping each other’s lives in building a new society. Leaving England behind, all still loyal to the idea of home. Dabby (Fifi Garfield) wants to feel the Devon rain again, apparently Australian rain isn’t the same!
There is little to do but work, and Captain Phillips wonders if the prisoners would be better entertained if they staged a play, than watched the hangings. Not all the officers think this is a good idea, some believing that convicts are beyond redemption, however, Ralph Clark takes on this mantle in the hope he might be promoted.
The 1706 George Farquhar play “The Recruiting Officer” is chosen and auditions begin, there is clearly going to be some difficulty, as only a few prisoners can read.
This play within a play is a literary device that predates Shakespeare and gives the audience the ability to see the characters grow before them, in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they had to remain in the constraints of their own world. No more so did we see this, than with Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy), who plays a lady from Shrewsbury, whilst pretending to be a man in breeches – it could have got confusing, but it didn’t.
There are many story lines, Harry Brewers, haunted by ghosts, dominates the shy Duckling (Emily Rose Salter) their story is powerful.
There is no conclusion to our play, it ends at the start of their play, we understand that life continues.
The staging was fabulous, at first as a hearing member of the audience, the captions and signing were distracting, but very quickly it was forgotten, and I was absorbed in the play. It was both heart-breaking and funny – sometimes in the same line. It is a long play at a little under three hours, and I must say I was somewhat disappointed to see that not all the audience returned following the interval, however, as the evening’s entertainment drew to a close; the audience rose to their feet and showed their appreciation.
Tickets cost from £8.50 to £37.50 (booking fees may apply).
Our Country’s Good is at the Nottingham Playhouse from 9-24 March 2018, for more information or to book tickets visit www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk or call the box office on 0115 941 9419.
Nottingham Playhouse, Wellington Circus, Nottingham, NG1 5AF | 0115 941 9419