Review: Our Country’s Good (National Theatre, London)

Set in 1788, Our Country’s Good looks at a group of convicts sent to Australia to colonise the land, along with the soldiers who travelled with them. A debate about the best way to improve civilisation starts an argument that ends in Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark agreeing to put on a play to give the convicts focus. The play is ‘The Recruiting Officer’; the actors are a mixed bag of willing and unwilling petty criminals.

As the play progresses, the story looks into the rehearsal room of the play and the battles between the players, at the disagreements within the soldiers’ ranks, the unconventional relationship between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and above all what it takes to bring about justice. This is civilisation in an uncivilised land.

The play, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is no stranger to the London stage. Revived every few years, recent productions will always be fresh in the mind of the audience, and while not all those performances have hit the mark, Our Country’s Good done well can be incredibly compelling. With just the right amount of comedy to outbalance the subject matter, it works well.

Unfortunately in this production from Nadia Fall, it all falls quite flat. Scenes blur into one another or feel like they appear from nowhere, and on the Olivier stage the more touching moments of redemption feel lost. Ultimately it’s those moments that would ordinarily give this play the edge it needs to succeed – to bring the audience down from the stomping ground of the rehearsal room – but here everything has been played on a level.

And it’s not really through the fault of the company. The cast do a fine job at delivering the material and each plays the part of their respective characters well – yes, it’s slightly pantomime at times, and much of the acting is done to emphasise the comedy over the subject matter, but it’s all OK. Special mention really has to go to Jodie McNee, whose Liz Morden felt closest to being a more complete persona, and to Ashley Maguire’s Dabby Bryant for getting the biggest laughs of the night. However, all in all, it never really feels like the company come together to gel as a single unit.

Much of the problem, in my humble opinion, lies in the venue choice; this would have worked much better in the Dorfman or the Lyttelton. In the Olivier, the more subtle nuances of the performances are drowned out and the touching moments barely noticeable against an unusual choice to make it appear like a large scale, epic play. It’s a play that wasn’t geared up for a stage of this scale, and that shows in some unusual directorial choices by Fall. Actors slip on and off the stage clumsily between scenes, or run around like they’re lost, while there’s a large amount of strutting around that simply comes across as an attempt to just use the space.

This mentality carries through to the design by Peter McKintosh as well, with a set that does everything it can to fill the void that can be the Olivier, but this is at the expense of giving any structure to the action. Yes, it’s very pretty and looks the part, with a large painting in the background and angled wooden stage built on top of the revolve, but it does nothing for framing the play itself. Actors march from one side to the other a bit aimlessly, and the revolve is used a ridiculous amount with very little purpose other than to inject some momentum into an otherwise flat production.

And the same can be said for the music by Cerys Matthews. It simply does the trick. I’ve seen mention of it being too intrusive and extending the set changes unnecessarily, but truthfully it left no real impression on me, being pretty enough to give context to the setting and unimpressive enough to be a little pointless.

It’s only in the closing moments, where the convicts are performing their play, that the set design, the drama and the music direction come together to really give the action a dramatic conclusion, but in a three-hour production the last 30 seconds being spot on just isn’t good enough.

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆

Aside from being cursed by being a little play on a big stage, there’s some poor direction at play here. The acting never quite hits the mark, the comedy and drama feel at odds, and the set design and music direction both feel like they’re trying to make the production something it isn’t. There are a couple of touching moments, but not enough to keep me engaged throughout the three hours.

Our Country’s Good is playing in rep at the National Theatre until 17th October. Tickets can be purchased from the National Theatre website here.

And the view…

Circle, row B, seat 15. View was good as ever. A little on the distant side, being off to the side and in the circle, but there was nothing missed for this production. There’s also a very good rake in there so there was no issue with people’s heads in the way. Also sound was OK but a few rows back and you start to notice it getting quite quiet in productions without mics. Only downside is after the two hour mark there was a degree of numbing of the bum..

Olivier Theatre, Circle, Row B, Seat 15
Olivier Theatre, Circle, Row B, Seat 15

 

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