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Our Country’s Good at The Olivier Theatre – Review

Shalisha James –Davis – Duckling Smith, Paul Kaye – Midshipman Harry Brewer
Shalisha James-Davis as Duckling Smith, Paul Kaye as Midshipman Harry Brewer – Photo credit Simon Annand

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s strange wild drama finds itself awash with contemporary relevance at every outing. This has been the case since its first staging at the Royal Court in 1988 under the direction of Max Stafford-Clark when its intricately knit themes of empire, warfare and retribution were ringing discordant bells in the late years of Thatcher’s Britain. Now in Nadia Fall’s plain and broad-acred production on the National’s Olivier stage, it speaks of the importance of culture in a time of violent iconoclasm and, of course, of the enduring presence of the old enemy within, the British class system.

This last entity is evoked by a rotating set which is both symbol and container of entrenched hierarchy, now the accentuated social strata of Sydney’s first penal colony, now the awful vessel which brought its below-decks convict settlers here.

It was the Australian author Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel The Playmaker which inspired Wertenbaker to dramatise the true story of the convicts’ staging of the Irish writer George Farquar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer. If this unique overseas premiere had not occurred, you could easily take it to be the fanciful construction of a twentieth century imagination bent on a satirical yoking themes of role play and institutionalised oppression.

What transpires is a comic but intense account of the convicts taking on the characters of the Captains Plume and Brazen, the country justices and sundry wenches in Farquar’s partly autobiographical play. What also transpires is a prime opportunity for the ironies of much character-doubling. A captive audience indeed, but with cast and spectators alike liberated by the processes of art.

There is desperately serious business afoot, with the men under Captain Arthur Phillip, played with power and sensitivity by Cyril Nri, charged with the discipline, not to mention dispatch, of their transgressive charges. The dire real-life entertainment of floggings and hangings is forever in the wings and on the stage while the play-within somehow manages to shrug off these distractions and reach performance standard, albeit with a six-month rehearsal which even the National crew can’t run to.

In this formidable and well-drilled cast, including Peter Forbes’ Major Ross and Jonathan Livingstone’s Captain Tench, Jodie McNee gives an outstanding performance as Liz Morden, the young woman destined to hang if she fails to give incriminating evidence against her fellow transports.

An absent but much-sung star of the show is Cerys Matthews, once the singer with Catatonia in the days of Britpop and now presenter of her own Sunday morning radio show on BBC6 Music. It is she who has supplied the production’s music. She may have been a controversial choice, but she was a canny one too, her songs being full of strong melodic lines but heading off the dangers of anything like pomp through the recruiting of the folk idiom to her cause. Credit too to Josienne Clarke who sings some of the tunes with the very calm and dignity from which the play’s hell-world is all but stripped.

An implausible evening, until you realise it’s nothing of the sort, but rather a waking into a kind of nightmare; to anyone who has read Robert Hughes’ classic The Fatal Shore, an all-too-real one.

You want a play about involuntary migration? Here it is. The healing power of drama? Likewise.
4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Observed by a lone, mystified Aboriginal Australian, the first convict ship arrives in Botany Bay, 1788, crammed with England’s outcasts. Colony discipline in this vast and alien land is brutal. Three proposed public hangings incite an argument: how best to keep the criminals in line, the noose or a more civilised form of entertainment?

The ambitious Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark steps forward with a play. But as the mostly illiterate cast rehearses, and a sense of common purpose begins to take hold, the young officer’s own transformation is as marked and poignant as that of his prisoners.

A profoundly humane piece of theatre, steeped in suffering yet charged with hope, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (based on a true story) celebrates the redemptive power of art.

Cerys Matthews makes her debut as a composer for the stage writing the music for Our Country’s Good.

Cast: Josienne Clark, Jonathan Coote, Matthew Cottle, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Peter Forbes, Jason Hughes, Ellie James, Shalisha James-Davis, Paul Kaye, Ollie King, Jonathan Livngstone, Ashley McGuire, Graeme McKnight, Jodie McNee, David Mara, Tadhg Murphy, Cyril Nri, Debra Penny, Lee Ross, Ben Walker, Gary Wood.

Creative Team:
Director – Nadia Fall
Designer – Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer – Neil Austin
Music – Cerys Matthews
Choreographer – Arthur Pita
Sound Designer – Carolyn Downing
Fight Director – Kate Waters
Music Director – Kevin Amos
Staff Director – Bryony Shanahan
Our Country’s Good
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Tuesday to Thursday and Saturda 2.00pm
Booking to 17th October 2015

Contains strong language, violence and scenes of an adult nature.
Olivier Theatre
Running time: 2hrs 50mins approx including one interval

Thursday 27th August 2015


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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