Directors have been known to face countless problems when staging productions, but it is unlikely that there is a director in the West End who has ever had to overcome the difficulties encountered by second lieutenant Ralph Clark in Out Of Joint’s production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, Our Country’s Good is set in a penal colony in New South Wales and charts the story of a group of convicts who are tasked – with the direction of young lieutenant Clark – to put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.
There are far greater crimes than those committed by Wertenbaker’s convicts but nevertheless the suffering endured by the English prisoners in Our Country’s Good is brutally savage and their fates undeniably unjust; the imminent end of Kathryn O’Reilly’s Liz Morden being the most poignant, as she waits to be hanged for a petty crime that she did not even commit.
There are comical moments too when the actors aim theatre-related jibes at the audience, announcing that “people with no imagination shouldn’t go to the theatre”, but it is often the actors’ adoption of their dual roles that draws out the production’s humour.
Shifting from the oppressor to the oppressed at the drop of a wig, Ciarán Owens’ performance sees him both as cruel major and quivering executioner, while Matthew Needham’s upright and well-spoken captain is unrecognisable under the guise of Robert Sideway’s hilariously hammed up Mr Worthy. Ian Redford is as compelling as haunted midshipman Harry Brewer as he is as unkempt auditionee Shitty Meg, and John Hollingworth’s word-loving John Wisehammer is as wise as the open-minded captain who believes that theatre can reform the prisoners’ habits.
O’Reilly’s performance is the source of much amusement as she strives to endow her gruff and disgruntled character with the countenance of a lady, and Laura Dos Santos is suitably meek as the only literate leading lady who ends up falling for Dominic Thorburn’s likeable and determined director.
With subplots of love, loss and hope, Max Stafford-Clark’s production – the director returning to the play that won an Olivier Award when he directed its world premiere in 1988 – first and foremost draws upon the civilising power of theatre and reflects not only the true story of the English convicts who put on a performance of Farquhar’s comedy in 18th century Australia, but also the modern day success stories of inmates who are inspired to act in prisons by companies such as Synergy Theatre Projects.
Tim Shortall’s set, complete with a wooden platform and scenic drapes, gives the production both a nautical and theatrical backdrop, allowing the cast of this play-within-a-play to alternate seamlessly and successfully between their multiple roles.