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Review: OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD, Tobacco Factory Theatres

Review: OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD, Tobacco Factory Theatres

Review: OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD, Tobacco Factory Theatres

It's a sensible time to be tackling Timberlake Wertenbaker's modern classic Our Country's Good. The role of theatre in society is ripe for the examination, as cuts bite arts institutions and school curriculums alike. The question is, what is there to be gained by putting on a play?

Set in a penal colony in Australia, this story of how a group of prisoners come to put on a production of The Recruiting Officer with the (sometimes) collaboration of their jailers is about the possibility that making theatre can be a restorative process, helping us to learn to work and be around one another peacefully.

That message is strong and clear in Anna Girvan's direction - she makes much of Dabby Bryant (a once again terrific Heather Williams) and her insistence that 'people without imaginations ought not to go to the theatre'. Girvan gives plenty of space to explore who theatre is for and what its effect may be.

That being said, for a play about the power of theatre, this production strikes an oddly hollow note. The first half feels laden, struggling to find a rhythm or depth of characters. Dabby is right about needing imagination in the theatre, but that imagination needs to be sparked by the on-stage action and that is curiously missing here.

The unspecified time period doesn't help- there's modern touches in costume and action but with odd recalls to the eighteenth century. Instead of appearing like a clever device, it comes across as muddled with the ensemble occasionally seeming caught in-between.

There's plenty to admire in the ensemble, Kim Heron grows into her role as Liz Morden and perhaps gives the production its strongest case for the transformative power of theatre as Morden becomes a functioning member of the theatre company - a feat that when we first met Morden, seemed impossible. Joseph Tweedale's Ralph Clark is another strong performance as Clark comes to see his prisoners as more than the sum of their parts.

Girvan notes that she wants people to ask 'who is theatre for?' and in that mission she is successful. As the officers discuss the merits of putting on a play, the modern parallels are clear. It must be this enduring question, as relevant today as it was when written in 1988, that continues to fuel productions. For some, that may be enough, but I just wanted a little more theatre and a little less message.

Our Country's Good at Tobacco Factory Theatres Until 11 May

Photo credit: Mark Dawson Photography

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