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Our Country’s Good (Susan Elkin reviews)

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s celebration of the transformational power of the arts in general, and theatre in particular, has never been more timely. And to present it in this imaginative, inclusive way (director: Fiona Buffini) using a diverse cast makes it even more moving and relevant. Thank goodness it has survived its association with the disgraced Max Stafford-Clark who commissioned it thirty years ago.

Ramps on the Moon is a consortium working with six theatres, including Nottingham Playhouse. One partner produces a show each year with an integrated cast including D/deaf, disabled, hearing and non-disabled people. The production then tours to the other theatres in the group. Our Country’s Good follows The Threepenny Opera and Tommy.

We’re in the Eighteenth Century and a group of convicts has just arrived in New South Wales. They are brutalised by the Marines who are nearly as miserable as their charges – thousands of miles from home in a hot alien arid place, dependent on erratic ships for supplies including food. Only the governor, Captain Arthur Philip (Keiron Jecchinis – nice performance) believes that the arts and kindness might, just might, improve things a little. So he encourages one of the officers to direct a play – Thomas Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – with a convict cast.

Caroline Parker is terrific as Meg. This show is structured to include integral signing and interpretation. Parker is almost continually on stage. Her own role is fairly minor but she voices characters who are signing and signs for characters who are speaking. She does this with total conviction, effectively jumping in and out of roles throughout.

There’s beautiful work too from Gbemisola Ikumelo as the truculent Liz Morden who eventually becomes one of the colony’s most adept and committed actors. And Sapphire Joy provides an admirable counter balance as Mary Brenham who seems, from the outset, less coarse than some of the others. Garry Robson is yearning and unhappy as Harry Brewer, the midshipman, whose only ray of light is the troubled convict Duckling Smith (Emily Rose Smith) with whom he cohabits. Tim Pritchett brings patience and commitment to Ralph Clark, the officer attempting to create art with this motley crew.

It’s a big cast of seventeen which works slickly together to ensure that the storytelling never flags. The whole show is both captioned and audio described. It couldn’t be more accessible and it was good to see such a fine piece of theatre at a full house matinee alongside, mostly, school parties and groups of retired people. It was obvious that most of the former are studying the play and therefore know it well while most of the latter, I inferred, had come to it without any foreknowledge. One of the wittier lines in the play is: “People without imagination shouldn’t come to the theatre”. No problems on this occasion when the response was warmly enthusiastic – as indeed it should be, given the excellence of the production.

First published by Sardines

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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