This is not a review or a preview but some personal thoughts from Harry Mottram on ACT’s latest production.
Our Country’s Good: Reflections – by Harry Mottram
And so the play begins. The play: Our Country’s Good. The setting: Axbridge Town Hall. The company: ACT – the town’s community theatre group with its director John Bailey – with a sizeable cast of residents playing the soldiers, convicts and administrators in the town’s somewhat confined space of the community’s main meeting place.
Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1980s drama set in New South Wales in 1788 has been one of the most popular plays with students and community theatre companies for several reasons. The most obvious one is its flexibility as the cast is large with a variety of roles both large and small. Some actors can double up or a director can cast an actor to just one part. Then there are the themes which resonate today: social immobility, injustice, class, sex, misogyny, love, hate, race, imperialism, domestic violence and the art of making a play. It’s pretty much all there with a large dose of comedy along with the darkness of the violence and cruelty.
Cast as the lone Aborigine I have the best seat in the house to watch the play as apart from the final scene I sit at the edge of the stage on a tree stump observing the action. With just four short pieces of poetic dialogue my role is more symbolic than anything else. As such this is not a review but some reflections on the drama I watch each night and of those who take on some of the roles in the play.
Phil Saunders plays the main protagonist Ralph Clark – one of the more testing ones in part due to the size of the role and amount of dialogue to remember. It’s a straight role as Clark is a serious and determined man whose opinions slowly change as he sees the enlightening effect of drama on the convicts. Phil retains Clark’s persona throughout and on the opening night was still able to inject a humorous adlib in one of those blank moments all actors occasionally suffer from.
The sarcastic, bullying, bigoted and cruel character of Ross is a classic baddie of the stage. I’m sure Tony Wilson doesn’t carry out executions and floggings on unfortunates in his spare time but he certainly gave the impression he enjoyed playing the near-pantomime villain. It was his portrayal of the half-wit Arscott that I found particularly impressive as playing a character completely removed from your own personality is a tougher gig.
David and Carole Maclean were a straightman-straightwoman double act as the voices of reason. Both deliver their lines in a paired back and restrained style which suited their roles. David as the Governor of the colony has a particularly natural approach, almost filmic in its subtleness and with a very rich resonance which adds to the gravity of his character.
Katie Williams in both her roles gave strong and committed performances. Her scene with the death of Harry had one of those stand-out moments as she begins to sing in a voice that had the perfect balance of mourning and soulfulness. And as the catty Duckling in the rehearsal scene she clearly has plenty of comic potential – even gaining audience laughs from not saying anything very well – to Harry in the boating scene.
As Campbell Will Vero created a comically menacing soldier who is full of bluff, a penny short of a shilling and who without Ross would probably be a more agreeable chap. As Ketch, Will again breathed life into the hangman and son of the Emerald Isle with a believable accent and great energy. His conversation with Clark in his tent was another stand-out sequence as again he found the character of Ketch within the dialogue prompting audience applause.
Two of my favourite moments purely for the comedy were the scenes with Bruce and Andrea Clench. Andre as Meg made the most of her ‘audition’ with Clark using innuendo to great effect while Bruce’s man of the cloth was enjoyably awkward as he used timing as it should be used in comedy – perfectly.
Talking of comedy Pete Harding’s performance as Sideway was another of the many highlights in the play. His physicality brought such a huge amount to the part as movement can say so much about a person. Minimal for the restrained Governor but excessive for the wannabee actor Sideway.
Acting out of your comfort zone is always hard but Nigel Newton as psychologically damaged Harry Brewer nailed it. His jabbering, quivering, unhinged moments of neo-schizophrenic dialogue created some of the most disturbing scenes, while his more reasoned character of Wisehammer seemed closer to his core personality and were just as realistic.
For Patsy Newton this was a first as she hadn’t appeared in a play before. She admitted suffering from a severe bout of stage fright beforehand but with such a clear voice and strong stage presence she shouldn’t have worried. Mary Brenham’s confidence grows as she becomes the central figure in The Recruiting Officer and her transformation was reflected in Patsy’s own performance as Mary’s character begins to mirror that of the actor.
Janet Gwinn was perfectly cast as the raunchy, earthy and determined to escape Dabby Bryant. Making the most of her scenes and her speeches this was one of her best ever performances. And in real life the real Dabby Bryant’s story is worth reading up on as she did finally escape and return to her beloved Cornwall. (Yes, the playwright changed it to Devon – but that’s allowed.)
Maggie Stanley was cast as a man and a person of colour who dreams of returning to Madagascar. She is also a drunk, a Francophile and a criminal – quite a lot for Maggie to take on board –but she did brilliantly beating the drum at the end of the show to bring down the final curtain.
I’ve been in plays with Sue Hughes since the late 1990s and so I know how versatile she is. From Little Jack Horner in panto to the violent Geordie Liz Morden. I was impressed with the immovable inner anger she gave the character which translated into a physical dignity impervious to the privations and bullying she contends with. Her ‘how did I get here’ speech gives the backstory to a girl who in another life would not have been sent to Australia as a convict. With her rich Newcastle accent this was a fine performance.
I can’t leave out the singers: Ede Bailey, Paul Ambrosius, Stella Moor and John Bailey who added a haunting dimension to the production. A production that picked out all the themes of Wertenbaker’s script and with David Parkin and David Moor’s set was brought to life with style by John Bailey’s direction. A production that has been a joy to be part of mainly it has to be said due to the camaraderie of the cast.
I’ve written at length about the situation of the Aboriginal Australians then and now in an article on my website at http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/?p=3460
The play wouldn’t happen however without the work of John Kendall (production), his daughter Sarah Kendall (the poster), Peter Holmwood (lighting), Janie Gray (costumes) and so many others in make-up, props and the friends of Axbridge Community Theatre. As I said, this is not a review but some personal reflections so apologies if it doesn’t reflect your own thoughts.
The plays runs from May 2-5, 2018.
More news and stories from Harry at www.harrymottram.co.uk
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