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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Our Country's Good
St James Theatre Spring 2013

Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation of 'The Playmaker' by Thomas Keneally became a modern classic when it was first performed almost twenty-five years ago. To celebrate, the play's original director, Max Stafford-Clark, has taken the reins once again for an anniversary production at the St James Theatre.

'Our Country's Good' tells the true story of a group of convicts, amongst the first to be deported to New South Wales, whose gaolers give them a break from the monotony of forced labour with the opportunity to put on a production of George Farquhar’s comedy ‘The Recruiting Officer’.

A cast of only ten portray all twenty-two characters, with everyone doubling up to play convicts and soldiers both – except Dominic Thorburn, who plays only Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the play's director. 

Thorburn initially seems to be playing Ralph with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek, which is entertaining but not sustainable over such a long period. Luckily, he relaxes in the play’s second half, and we see something more fully realised – not just a joke but a sincere, if slightly ridiculous, man.

This observation could largely be applied to the production as a whole, as there is a little too much reaching for laughs in the first half, which has a slightly desperate feel to it and clearly left the not over-large audience feeling a little awkward.  The cast were not helped by the sensation that comes from a large space being underpopulated, as the newly-rebuilt St James is still finding its audience. But the second half flows far more naturally, with the comic moments developing more organically and grating far less.

However, though all of the performances are strong, and some very strong indeed, it is only Kathryn O'Reilly who really seems to shine. O’Reilly brings humour, pathos and believable character development to the lifelong victim of the criminal justice system Liz Morden. 

Honourable mentions, nonetheless, must go to Ciaran Owens for his nuanced portrayal of the colony’s first hangman and John Hollingworth, whose sincere Wisehammer is deeply relatable and not a little tragic.

Wertenbaker's argument for the redemption and reformation of criminals through the arts is certainly relevant, and some of the debate among gaolers over allowing prisoners this 'luxury' will sound very modern and familiar. 

This revival is largely a successful celebration of a well-loved, enduringly popular 20th century drama, performed by a confident and assured company, with neat design from Tim Shortall and wonderful period costumes. If it falls just short of brilliance, at least we can be glad that this very likeable production has introduced a new generation to an engaging and relevant play.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - Our Country's Good - St James Theatre 2013    

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