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Our Country’s Good at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Our Country's Good - (L-R) Tom Dawze (John Wisehammer), Will Lewis (John Arscott), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Liz Morden), Keiren Hamilton-Amos (Caesar) and Tim Pritchett (Ralph Clark) Credit Catherine Ashmore
Our Country’s Good – (L-R) Tom Dawze (John Wisehammer), Will Lewis (John Arscott), Gbemisola Ikumelo (Liz Morden), Keiren Hamilton-Amos (Caesar) and Tim Pritchett (Ralph Clark) Credit Catherine Ashmore

Our Country’s Good (the title is a pun “We left Our Country for Our Country’s Good“) tells the remarkable story of the 800 convicts sent to Australia from Portsmouth, England on the 13th May 1787. The play is both harrowing and funny. The play shows how the officers were divided about how to treat the convicts. The Hawks led by Major Robbie Ross (Colin Connor) advocate harsh punishment, hanging, flogging and degrading insults. Ross makes Robert Sideway (Alex Nowak) remove his shirt to show the weal’s on his back as a result of the 200 lashings Ross has inflicted. He grabs Dabby Bryant (Fifi Garfield) by the hair and orders her to get down all fours and beg for her food by wagging her tail and barking. The Doves led by Captain Arthur Philip (Kieron Jecchinis) believe that exile is punishment enough and that kindness and compassion is the answer.

The play dramatizes these differences in a series of powerful scenes of both cruelty and hope. Captain Philip proposes that the convicts put on a play as this will both educate and expand their minds. After a fierce debate in which Major Ross ridicules such nonsense, the Captain gets his way and the play rehearsals begin. The action of Our Country’s Good shows the Herculean struggle of Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Tim Prichett) as he struggles to get the convicts to rehearse the 1706 comedy The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. So it’s a play about a group of convicts putting on a play in Australia. Of course, everything goes wrong. The wonderfully named John Arscott (Will Lewis) steals food and runs into the outback only to return as the “compass” he has bought from a fellow convict is nothing but a piece of paper with an arrow and the letter N. Caesar (Keiren Hamilton – Amos) gets stage fright, fears that his ancestors in Madagascar will disapprove and takes to the bottle. Robert Sideway interrupts his performance to fight with Liz Morden (Gbemisola Ikumelo) who he thinks has stolen his handkerchief.

But despite everything, Ralph Clark persists, primarily because of his infatuation with the most promising of the convict/actors the beautiful and beguiling Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy). This insight, that directors have mixed motives some admirable others selfish, is typical of Wertenbaker’s no holds barred exploration of the human condition. Several times during the course of the play an Aboriginal Australian (Milton Lopes) appears and comments on the action. This is a brilliant device as it shows the marginalisation of the Aborigines by the way in which his role in the play is marginal, peripheral, on the edge. Finally, we see the damage done to the aboriginal way of life via smallpox brought to Australia by the Europeans as he falls down in agony from the disease.

Wertenbaker has written the most beautiful play, there isn’t a word wasted. She isn’t judgemental. We’re able to enter the world of officers and convicts. The play is profound, dark and very funny. It challenges us to think about the world and yet delights us with the farcical goings-on of a rehearsal going disastrously wrong. Think Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Ultimately Our Country’s Good is an endorsement of the power of art to change lives. The play shows both convicts and some officers changing. It’s about transformation and redemption. Both officers and convicts learn that with compassion, imagination and kindness anything is possible and they are more able to judge themselves and others less harshly. All the world’s a stage and all the officers and convicts superb players.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally; Directed by Fiona Buffini; Designed by Neil Murray Lighting Design by Mark Jonathan; Composer / Sound Design by: Jon Nicholls. Associate Director: Simon Startin.

The Nottingham Playhouse and Ramps on The Moon co-production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker opens at Theatre Royal Stratford East on 25 April and runs until 5 May. Nottingham Playhouse associate director Fiona Buffini directs Colin Connor, Tom Dawze, Jarrad Ellis-Jones, Fifi Garfield, Keiren Hamilton-Amos, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Kieron Jecchinis, Sapphire Joy, Will Lewis, Milton Lopes, Alex Nowak, Caroline Parker, Tim Pritchett, Fergus Rattigan, Garry Robson, Emily Salter and Nabil Shaban. The production will première at Nottingham Playhouse and then tour to New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sheffield Crucible and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

In 1787, ships with over 700 convicts on board set sail on an eight-month voyage. When they arrive in Australia, their survival is by no means certain: supplies are running out, the convicts are stealing food or trying to escape, and the guards are threatening mutiny.

Our Country’s Good tells the extraordinary true story of a group of convicts and a young officer who rehearse and perform a play – Australia’s first theatrical production. With opposition from the officers and a leading lady who may be hanged, the odds are stacked against them.

This production of Our Country’s Good will have embedded creative use of Audio Description, Captioning and British Sign Language in all performances.

A Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company production in co-production with Ramps On The Moon
By Timberlake Wertenbaker
25 April – 5 May 2018


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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