|Our Country’s Good is a play so ubiquitous on the school syllabus and gracing so many theatre brochures it is easy to overlook just what a great play it is. It probably lays claim to the play I know more than any other, having acted, directed and been an audience member of, and it has been little more than two years since Out Of Joint revival production from original director Max Stafford-Clarke graced the city. Even with these countless versions swirling in my mind though, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools production claims its place at the top of the pile, it’s a terrifically well-acted version in Gemma Fairlie’s strong production that promises big things from this current graduating year.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 work tackles big themes: crime and punishment, education, the redemptive power of art; and places them through the prism of a big historical epic. An adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, it follows the attempts of the first batch of convicts deported to Australia to rehearse and perform George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer. Originally a disparate, inarticulate and violent group, they begin to form close familial bonds, so recognised by anyone who has ever participated in the art of creating theatre that is by turns opposed and supported by the officers who have been placed on the island with them.
Although it is a play full of powerful political thought, its source novel ensures the plot keeps rollicking along. The rehearsals are threatened by falling outs within the company, spiteful officers determined to stop the production going ahead and the threat of death hovers like a spectre over all their heads.
Gemma Fairlie’s production is very good at maximising the wide open stage of the Redgrave to symbolise the epic barren vastness of this new continent that these characters find themselves in. It’s a world full of terror but also one perhaps of opportunity and new beginnings. Laura Soper’s Mary Brennan starts the play near mute through shame but finds her voice and a place in the director’s bed as the company leading lady. Soper, who was a memorably mischievous Puck earlier this year, is a delight going from broken door mouse to flourishing company leader over the course of the evening though the chemistry between herself and Freddie Bowerman’s Second Lieutenant Ralph Clarke only really becomes apparent at the moment of their first physical encounter. Bowerman has the look and physicality that suggests he could follow the same career trajectory of Tom Hiddlestone, though the part of Ralph always feels a little dry on the stage in comparison to the rest of the characters around him.
From these there are telling contributions from Eleanor House as the country best friend who enthusiastically embraces the project, from Afolabi Alli as a cockney pickpocket, Edward Stone as a Jewish man intoxicated with words and Sarah Livingstone as the violent con with a heart underneath. It is strong work across the board though from its twelve strong cast and the appetite has been whetted for what is to come. It is a joy that a work about the creation of family through theatre sees the other half of this year’s cohort on their feet to celebrate the achievements of their year group. For these young actors the journey is only just beginning.