Our Country's Good

Mercury Theatre, Colchester Arthur Phillip is not totally averse to hanging and flogging but he believes there's a bit of good in everybody if only you can find it.

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Colchester Mercury, until November 18.

Arthur Phillip is not totally averse to hanging and flogging but he believes there's a bit of good in everybody if only you can find it. His Majesty King George III has appointed him Governor of New South Wales and has given him about 800 convicts and a handful of soldiers with which to set up shop.

Phillip has no idea why he has been dragged away from the peace of his English farm to rule this hell-hole at the backside of the world but he's going to do it to the best of his ability. He may have been handed the dregs of the London streets, thieves, cut-throats and whores, but, he argues, nobody is beyond redemption and there must be a way to ease at least some of them back to the paths of righteousness.

Perhaps what they really need is a bit of culture. Books are in short supply in late 18th century Botany Bay but somebody does have a copy of George Farquhar's stage comedy, The Recruiting Officer, so let's put on a show.

This is a suggestion that reduces Major Robbie Ross to red-faced fury. The criminals are here to be punished, not entertained, he rages. But Lieutenant Ralph Clark latches on to the idea. It might just do him a bit of good with the Governor. May even bring promotion.

Clark desperately misses his wife who he left in England and he's about the only soldier not shacked up with with one of the tramsported women. But he throws himself into the Farquhar play with gusto, finds a cast among the prisoners and the rehearsals begin.

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It's uphill all the way because initially the players are really only interested in acting as a skive from hard labour and Major Ross doesn't help by flogging a couple of the cast and trying to hang the leading lady for something she didn't do.

But slowly the play does become the thing and it is this clever tranformation that gives the play its wonderful edge. It is very funny in parts, a blessed mixture of humour and drama that builds to a terrific climax.

Justin Grattan is the only member of a cast of ten who doesn't play at least two parts, a doubling up that is intitially a bit confusing but eventually grows on you. Grattan is a good Lt Clark, Tim Treslove a nicely beastly Major Ross, Yvonne Wandera a fetching Mary Brenham and Christine Absalom a wickedly Catherine Tate-like know-all in a uniformly good choice of actors.

David Henshall.

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