An excellent choice by Oxford Theatre Guild, Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker transports us back to 1788 and the establishment of the first penal colony in
A brutalist set provides a simple playing space, and light and sound are the only hints at our antipodean location. The costumes do an excellent job of defining our redcoats and convicts, and permit some impressive character changes by a cast who nearly all play two roles.
The story, based on the 1987 novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, focuses on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, and the attendant difficulties that a cast of theatrically inexperienced convicts generates for young officer Ralph Clark (Niall McDaid), who’s determined to make a good impression on newly appointed Colonial Governor Captain Arthur Phillip (Richard Readshaw). McDaid’s engagingly clear-eyed energy carries the show, and much of the drama stems from its clash with the cynical attitudes of the other officers, and his theatrically-challenged convicts. Readshaw is excellent as the Governor, balancing the needs and aspirations of a young colony, and his transformations into convict John Wisehammer are the most sharply defined of the piece.
A motley band of she-lags (Wertenbaker’s cunning postulation as to the origin of the Aussie idiom) is all spit, claws and teeth, apart from ingénue Mary Brenham (Rachael Twyford) who, after a timid beginning, turns out to the the star of the show and captures the heart of its director. Twyford skilfully navigates that journey, and her scenes with McDaid are delightful, the two together delivering a subtlety and emerging passion that is captivating.
There are some colourful accents that support the various character transformations, and generally the speech is clear and well-projected. The storytelling is strong, but loses momentum through long scenes changes, and the insertion of songs which do little to inform or punctuate the action, extending the running time to around 3 hours.
A packed house gave the show a very warm reception on Thursday evening, and for those of us feeling the urge to travel in this lengthening period of responsibly-staying-at-home I would wholeheartedly recommend this production as an excellent escape, and a strong reminder that it could always be worse.