Presented by The Stirling Players
Reviewed 24 September 2016
Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play. Our Country’s Good, explores what is possibly one of the lesser known events in the history of our country: the production of the first play to be performed in Australia.
In 1789, the Governor of the colony of New South Wales, Arthur Philip commanded a young Second Lieutenant to present a play using convicts, to prevent hanging becoming the only ‘entertainment’. The play was George Farquhar’s English comedy, The Recruiting Officer.
There were many obstacles to overcome such as only two copies of the script being available and many of the convicts taking part couldn’t read or write. Wertenbaker’s script not only deals with those problems, but also with those associated with founding a nation in an ‘upside down desert’ – the landscape and climate being so diametrically opposed to that of motherland England – and the harshness and inhumanity of the times.
The first thing to strike one as they enter the theatre is Denis Peach’s clever, striking ‘blank canvas’ set design. The slightly off-white stage evokes a feeling of vastness that was Australia at the time; and when flooded with Sally Putnam’s beautiful lighting design, one is transported (pun intended) to what Australia once was. The other element that completes an almost perfect picture technically is that of wonderfully authentic looking costumes (especially the British uniforms) by Viki Burrett, Sandra Kantaros, Amy Greig and Rob Andrewartha.
The main component that doesn’t work that well is John Graham’s direction. The diction of some of the cast is almost unintelligible at times, especially the first dialogue spoken – somewhat of a puzzle as the theatre is nicely comfortable in size; there are some horrendous blocking issues (please don’t put the shortest cast member behind taller people, even if they are sitting down!); and the pace tends to drag at times, although the first rehearsal scene is wonderfully pacy and hilarious.
The glue of this play is the appointed ‘director’, 2nd Lieut. Ralph Clark, RM played strongly by Lee Cook. There is nothing out of place with Cook’s performance. It is choc-a-block full of humanity, frustration and slight fragility. The other truly great standout is Dave Simms in two very different roles: the no-nonsense, harsh Major Robbie Ross, RM and Irish convict turned ‘hangman’, Ketch Freeman. Both these roles have the best lines in the show, and Simms proves he knows that with his perfect timing and delivery.
Other males who impress are Tim Williams (Captain David Collins, RM), Jason Sardinha (Black Caesar and an Aboriginal Australian), Patrick Marlin (John Arscott) and Jakob Maddocks (John Wisehammer). Whilst Nathan Brown was humorously flamboyant as Robert Sideway, he was all a bit too ‘over the top’ at times for this reviewer.
The entire female contingent of the cast (Jean Collins, Ellie McPhee, Katherine Silbereisen, Kate van der Horst and Mo Johnson) are all excellent. Johnson almost steals the show with her crotch scratching Madam.
Whilst probably not being one of Stirling Players stand-out productions, it is never-the-less an interesting insight into our past and does manage to entertain fairly well. No-one will be flogged or sent to the colonies because of it.
Reviewed by Brian Godfrey
Venue: Stirling Community Theatre
Season: 23 Sept – 8 Oct 2016
Duration: 2 hours plus interval
Tickets: $16 – $22
Bookings: stirlingplayers.sct.org.au or 0414 075 413