I recently visited Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice and was struck by the exhibitions about men and women punished with transportation to Australia. It’s a strange and scary thought, to be sent halfway across the world for a crime that nowadays wouldn’t warrant a prison sentence- and so I was particularly interested in how this theme would be handled on the stage.
Our Country’s Good features characters based on real people, telling the story of a group of officers and convicts who sailed with the First Fleet. The story begins with their harsh journey to the new colony, going on to ruminate on the effectiveness of hanging as punishment. An interesting debate develops on stage; instead of striking fear into the convicts with the threat of a hanging, can they be rehabilitated another way? A play-within-a-play scenario unfolds, as the charmingly nervous 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Carn Truscott) attempts an experimental mission of redemption through theatre.
Rifling through the programme to Our Country’s Good it was clear that this play would demand total commitment from the cast
With rogues, pickpockets and prostitutes making up his company of actors, producing a Restoration comedy will obviously be no mean feat for the young Lieutenant. The events and relationships that unfold allow for plenty of humour, but also raise some important questions about the fine line between those in authority- the supposedly moral Officers- and those being punished. As the play develops, this line blurs. Major Ross (Duncan McGillivray) progresses from grumpy to quite terrifying in his lack of empathy for the prisoners, whilst initially crass and aggressive characters such as Liz Morden (Zoe Plummer) gain audience sympathy and reflect the plot’s driving idea; theatre can be a force of good for prisoners, because it allows them to be somebody else for a while. Somebody who can be watched and applauded, as opposed to disdained.
The set design is minimalistic – a wooden floor and boxes, framed by washing lines. I rather liked the effect this created, echoing the barren nature of the land the characters have come to inhabit. As the cast were on stage from the audience’s entrance, my attention was initially distracted from the scenery; it took me a few scenes to notice what was hanging ominously in the background.
Stick with it – this is a production filled with humour, heart and emotional punch.
Rifling through the programme to Our Country’s Good it was clear that this play would demand total commitment from the cast, as it requires the majority of them to multi-role. This can understandably be difficult, but the cast can be congratulated on the this feat being pulled off with aplomb. An impressive range of accents and mannerisms were mastered by all, which more than makes up for a few stuttered lines. Eoin Buckley and Ellen Richardson as Harry and Duckling respectively deserve special mention for their powerful depiction of the conflicted Officer-convict relationship. In a performance filled with comedy, Sam Young as Captain Campbell also stood out, managing to raise the biggest laughs with relatively few lines.
The first few scenes of Our Country’s Good are admittedly somewhat confusing. Some of the more experimental aspects- such as the moments when the actors ‘step in’ to characters- seem forced, and were a bit distracting. But stick with it; this is a production filled with humour, heart and emotional punch. It comes across as a play that has been crafted with loving care; director Laura Thornton has styled her Director’s Note as ‘A Love Letter to Our Country’s Good’ in the programme, and it’s easy to see that passion reflected in the performance. Overall, Our Country’s Good is well worth a watch.
‘Our Country’s Good’ is running at New Theatre until Saturday 29th November, for more information see here