Review: Our Country’s Good, Radio 4

“Who would act in a play?
‘The convicts of course’”

I hadn’t ever listened to a play on the radio before until Mike Bartlett’s Cock last month (indeed I don’t listen to the radio at all) and though I enjoyed revisiting that show, I couldn’t quite figure out the logistics of listening to theatre, eventually figuring out that I actually needed to stop doing anything else and just give it my full attention. I don’t really have much spare time though so I didn’t think that I’d be returning to the wireless to increase my theatrical fix. But a double bill of fascinating plays – Our Country’s Good and The Recruiting Officer – with an all-star thesp-heavy cast tempted me back and provided me with a most entertaining soundtrack for my Christmas journey home.

Funnily enough, I have seen neither play before but have tickets to see both in the early months of next year: Our Country’s Good at the Rose, Kingston and The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar, and I hadn’t realised the connection between the two before starting the first play. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is based on a novel by Thomas Keneally which tells the true story of Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s 1789 attempts to put on a production of George Farquhar’s play The Recruiting Officer using a cast of convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales. This radio production was then followed by the convicts’ version of The Recruiting Officer, using much of the same cast.

I really enjoyed the play as it plays with ideas of the power of theatre especially as a tool for creating a sense of community and also in its potential to rehabilitate prisoners as the survival of the colonies in Australia were dependent on a population working together. The governing military men considered themselves a class apart and the clear divisions between those that believed in the ability of theatre as a rehabilitative, educational exercise and those that didn’t believe that the prisoners deserved anything other than the harshest treatment forms the crux of the drama as the rehearsals open up new opportunities, new visions and new challenges for the prisoners and guards alike.

It is helped of course by a really classy cast of actors, and an excellent choice of distinctive voices that really worked well in this medium. Paul Higgins as Ralph, the major driving force behind the play, has a keen kindly passion that is sharply contrasted with Stuart McQuarrie’s brutally bitter Major Ross; Kate Fleetwood is as accomplished as she ever is as Liz Morden, a particularly feisty prisoner who is forced to learn a lot; and Adam James, Elliot Levey and Adjoa Andoh all make small but valuable contributions, the latter’s voice in particular coming across beautifully.  

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