REVIEW: Our Country’s Good (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, November 15)

What's on.
What's on.

Enforced life on the other side of the world, dreams of freedom, and the life-changing power of theatre are themes explored to enthralling effect in Our Country’s Good, currently nearing the end of an all-too-short international tour.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s powerful 1988 drama packed a punch then, as well as winning numerous top awards, and 26 years later it remains unnerving, heart-warming and thought-provoking.

Adapted from the much-lauded Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker, this is the story of a rough and ready group of Royal Marines and convicts in 1780s Australia, who decide to stage a production of The Recruiting Officer in an attempt to escape the tedium of life in the remotest penal colony of the British Empire.

Unsurprisingly, much of the drama stems from the clash of cultures as the respectable but often harsh officers are confronted by the reality that they are isolated on the other side of the world with only the transported criminals for company.

At another, even more compelling, level the play (based on real events and characters) asks questions about what it means to be wonderfully touched by Arts and drama, and there is a fascinating balance between the almost dehumanising impact on some of the captors and the civilising effect the staging of the piece has on the convicts, who are the ones to discover true dignity and liberty.

Directing originally at the Royal Court in 1988 was Max Stafford-Clark, who returns to this Out Of Joint and Octagon Bolton co-production with a fresh eye, ensuring it is as relevant now as then. He was present on first night to give a post-show talk, and his programme notes about the original characters featured in the play make for interesting reading.

There is a clever doubling-up of parts by most of the ten-strong company – in many cases the character of the officers is mirrored somehow by the convict character’s role, adding extra layers to the unfolding story.

Simon Darwen gives extraordinary depth to the dual roles of forward-looking governor Captain Arthur Phillip and the snuff-stealing wordsmith John Wisehammer; Nathan Ives-Moiba is strong as the weak Lieutenant Ralph Clark, transformed by his dramatic responsibilities and discovery of new love; Jessica Tomchak is excellent as the colony’s moral chaplain Rev Johnson and shy Mary Brenham who gains confidence and respect through the acting; and Kathryn O’Reilly exquisite as thief Liz Morden, who finds her true voice through the drama and perhaps receives the greatest redemption through the entertainment.

Also extremely pleasing are Richard Neale as the bitter and intimidating Major Ross and the despised hangman Ketch Freeman, desperate to be accepted by his fellows; David Newman as Captain David Collins and the wonderfully enthusiastic London pickpocket Robert Sideway, eager to tread the boards; Victoria Gee as sarcastic Officer Faddy and the dreamer Dabby Bryant; Anna Tierney as a compassionate officer and young prostitute; Cornelius Macarthy, giving Aboriginal voice to the fears about the new settlers as well as the cynical officer who feels the only entertainment the convicts enjoy is hanging, and the overly-keen Madagascan who suffers from stage fright; and Sam Graham, called upon to play four roles – from a tormented midshipman to a dim-witted convict who also finds a sense of release in the play within the play.

There are times when it feels as though a more intimate setting would work better for the story – the traditional proscenium arch can make it all a bit distant – but that never detracts from the strengths of the production, an unmissable work of poignancy and vitality with more than a hint of a message to our contemporary world of cuts to Arts funding.