Review by Matthew Taylor
Obviously I can’t start without mentioning that this production marked the ten-year anniversary of Pepper’s Ghost Theatre Company – has it really been that long? Looking back through previous reviews I see of course that it has, which marks a massive achievement by the company and everyone who’s been involved with it – I know from bitter experience that it is difficult enough getting together a team and putting on ONE large-scale play at a local level, let alone several a year for an entire decade. Congratulations to Pepper’s Ghost and all who sail in her!
That’s not the only notable landmark of “Our Country’s Good”, though – it also saw them move from their original home to the only theatrical venue in town I know even better: Stantonbury Theatre. I almost literally grew up in there, so this development is incredibly pleasing for me. While the venue formerly known as MADCAP may have had the quirky unpredictability of an exciting community theatre, it’s certainly an extremely welcome relief after a decade to be able to sit in a comfortable seat!
Anyway, on to the show. “Our Country’s Good”, the 1988 play by the fantastically-named Timberlake Wertenbaker (and, incidentally, the first play I studied at university!) is set in a newly-founded penal colony in Australia (sorry, New South Wales) in the 1780s, and tells the story of a group of convicts who are encouraged by a sympathetic lieutenant to come together and put on a play (George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer”) to assist in their rehabilitation – despite the antagonistic opposition from some of his fellow officers.
Looking back over my previous Pepper’s Ghost reviews, it seems I have regularly praised them for their ability to make long plays watchable without any draggage, and the same was true of “Our Country’s Good” – which on leaving I was surprised to realise had nudged the two-and-a-half-hour mark! Pacing is such a vital and often unrecognised component of theatre, and I’m always relieved that director Rosemary Hill continues to be so adept at achieving it along with her actors.
I was also intrigued to see how the company would adapt to the much larger stage and auditorium, but in many ways it felt like a more appropriate space for them. The set design by Kevin Jenkins was free to be far more expansive than before, echoing the vast open tracts of the new land being colonised. Similarly, Laura Day’s lighting was able to be significantly richer at Stantonbury – I particularly liked the half-light which appeared for some of the scene-changes and monologues by the Aboriginal character, evoking the otherworldly concept of “Dreamtime”.
The actual performances were to the usual high standard (but of course!), even where the play calls for “doubling up” (in fact this allowed several of the main players to demonstrate impressive range). With my usual disclaimer about the unfairness of singling out any performances in particular, I really must mention Ryan Truscott in the lead role of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark – the character as written occasionally veers close to being a bit sappy, but Ryan Truscott managed to convey his frustrations (physical frustrations as well as emotional in one very memorable scene!) and his optimistic conviction very plausibly.
I also particularly enjoyed all of the scenes with the convicts en masse rehearsing for the performance – I do love a ‘play within a play’ scenario – the raucous (and often beautifully poignant) fun they were having, with the richness of some of the period slang and the growing confidence in the strange circumstances in which they’d found themselves at the very heart of the play.
I was also heartened that on the night I was there, the audience was full of Sixth Form students who all seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly (particularly the more overtly comic moments). That may be because the play is currently an A Level text, but to me that’s less important than the actual fact of seeing young people a) seeing a contemporary play, performed at b) a brilliant local theatre by c) some of the best theatre practitioners and performers in town. It fair warms the cockles – here’s to the next ten years, Pepper’s Ghost!