U.K. Review: "Our Country’s Good" at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

Since seeing their hit production of The Government Inspector a while back, I’ve really been enjoying the work of the pioneering Ramps on the Moon initiative, which aims to integrate more deaf and disabled performers and theatrical conventions into mainstream theatre. This includes innovative use of captioning and the integration of British Sign Language into the performance, ultimately creating a universal, accessible production for all audience members to enjoy. On that note, I was very much looking forward to seeing their latest collaboration with Nottingham Playhouse: a new production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, which I managed to catch on its stop at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In case you’re not already familiar with it, Our Country’s Good is set in 1787, and follows a group of convicts and a young officer who rehearse and perform Australia’s first theatrical production during their time in the colony. The young officer, Ralph Clark (Tim Pritchett), works hard to give his convicts a shot at redemption; among them are Liz Morden (Gbemisola Ikumelo), Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy) and Robert Sideway (Alex Nowak), and along with the other convicts, they band together against rising tensions in the colony to discover a whole new purpose.

Our Country's Good 1.jpg

From this production’s opening moments, there is an infectiously palpable sense of energy and drive amongst the ensemble of performers as they work to execute Wertenbaker’s text. Indeed, a trademark trait in this piece, along with the other Ramps on the Moon pieces I have reviewed, is the sheer unflappable commitment of the cast as they come together to convey the narrative. Director Fiona Buffini really pushes this into overdrive, and through a careful and sensitive directorial handling of the text, distils the ensemble’s commitment into phases that match the exposition of Wertenbaker’s piece to astounding effect.

What really excited me in this piece, however, is the deftly handled integration of BSL into the proceedings. Buffini, working with BSL Creative Consultant Paula Garfield, has crafted a unique dramaturgical methodology that enhances the narrative and the overall deployment of gesture in the piece. During some scenes, other characters enter the space and converse with one another through BSL, as if they were convicts sharing stories and spreading rumours that would have formed the tense pulse of the colony. During the rehearsals of the convicts’ play, other characters accompany one another with BSL too, creating a harmonious dialogue between the vocal and the performative.

In this environment, the company members truly excel. Each performance amongst the ensemble is sensitive and considered, working in tandem with the overall sense of energy pulsating throughout the company’s combined efforts to tell the story. They handle the emotional turbulence within Wertenbaker’s text with ease and creative flair, creating organic characters that fully represent the play-world and strive to tell the extraordinary story of the convicts they portray. Further to this, and perhaps more significantly, they also tell the extraordinary story of the feats of theatrical strength that Ramps on the Moon have been achieving as a truly unique theatrical consortium.

Bolstering these exceptional performances is an impressive scenography, comprised of designer Neil Murray’s stunning set, which excellently represents the sparseness and isolation of the colony’s ramshackle architecture. Mark Jonathan’s lighting design pushes this further, drawing on a muted colour palette from the scorching, overbearing Australian sun that hems the convicts in. The scenography gives us a clear look at the extraordinary environment the convicts would have worked in, and magnifies their successes, along with the individual successes of the actors, as they strive for change.

This production of Our Country’s Good makes for an exceptional time at the theatre, not only giving audiences the opportunity to enjoy exceptional storytelling, but also to bear witness to the extraordinary work Ramps on the Moon have been accomplishing. It’s powerful, inviting, engaging and truly unmissable.

Our Country’s Good is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 21st April. For more information and tickets, visit https://www.wyp.org.uk/events/our-countrys-good/