“Our Country’s Good”’s been around since 1988, so how come Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it? Well 1988 was a time of Us Doing Other Things and theatre wasn’t on the agenda that often. I’d heard that it was a well thought-of play about life in a penal colony in Australia and that it had won awards and is studied in schools. And so it is. It’s a tough play in many respects – it doesn’t hesitate to show the savagery of the penal colony, the hopelessness of the inmates, and the sad loneliness of the officers too (some of them – not the ones who are being sadistic, they quite like it.)
So I jumped at the chance of seeing it on stage. I was impressed at how the play takes on many themes. On the one hand, it’s an historical account of the penal colony and how the first ever production of a play on Australian soil came about. On another level, it questions loyalty within subgroups – literally honour amongst thieves; the part the arts can play in redeeming a criminal soul; and the rights and wrongs of a sadistic justice system. The play is just on for three nights at the Underground at the Derngate, performed by the Derngate’s Community Actors Group. (What a shame they decided to add an apostrophe on the programme!) We’d seen members of the group a couple of years ago when they performed Alan Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies as part of the Derngate’s Ayckbourn summer season, and that production proved a most enjoyable and important part of the programme.
It’s a delight to see the play performed in the Underground Studio, with the seats lining the edges of the room so as to create a very intimate theatre-in-the-round effect. Having just a few props and items of furniture encourage your imagination to fill in the gaps, which is something I always enjoy in the theatre; although to be fair, I was also impressed to see a rowing boat in this production! Attention to detail was very good, with excellent costumes and sensibly evocative sound effects.
The cast work together really well and have an obvious affinity for the play itself. There were some excellent performances – Meryl Couper as the unashamedly tricky Liz Morden, has some of the best lines and delivered them with a great mix of comic timing and vitriol. At the beginning of the second act is a speech as full of difficult to comprehend words as some of the most intractable lines of Jacobean Tragedy – yet she actually made it understandable. Delivering tough justice, Sue Whyte played Major Robbie Ross as a hard warden and a critical colleague; a very strong and memorable performance. She also did a great comic cameo as Meg the whore.
Will Adams brought natural authority to the role of Captain Philip, the man in charge of the penal colony, trying to balance natural justice with the need to run the place effectively. I also very much liked Paul Tunnicliffe’s John Arscott, the keen but troubled convict actor, whose clarity of speech and terrific acting skills could fill the National Theatre. Adam Kozuch grew into the character of Harry Brewer, and the scene depicting his hallucinations of guilt, as a result of arranging the deaths of convicts whom he had started to like, was very powerful. Righting the wrongs of last year by dealing with the sin of omission, I should have blogged (but never did) the excellent Northampton Town Walk “Town, My Town” in which Adam Kozuch made a couple of memorable appearances, especially when he came to life as the man reading The Crucible on the Church park bench. If you experienced it, you’ll definitely remember it.
All in all, a very enjoyable evening, and a vivid and clear presentation of an emotionally tough play.