Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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Education, Education, Education (Bedlam: 14 – 17 Nov.’18)

” It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

“Willkommen, Tobias. Boys and girls, please welcome Tobias from Berlin who will be helping out in the Modern Languages department”. And Tobias has the lunatic misfortune of arriving at Wordsworth comprehensive school on ‘Muck Up Day’ when the Year 11 (S5) pupils go off into the fabled ‘mists of Study Leave’. Run-up activities include include pinging shag bands, playing basketball in the corridors and placing a live chicken in the library. The finale will be an Achievement Assembly with a suicidal child on the roof.

Welcome, also, by happy coincidence to May 2, 1997 when Labour wins a record-breaking 419 seats to form its first government since 1979. The manifesto promise of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is all over the staff room. The teachers are excited, jumpy, and the febrile atmosphere is only fanned by the breakout of Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher of ‘Oasis’ will be at a Downing Street reception on the 10th, but Tobias (Max Prentice) is friendly and unassuming, a ‘Take That’ kind of guy. You’ll like him immediately and come to trust him, which is handy because where there’s perspective and order, there’s Tobias. Elsewhere, on this important day, the school is a frenzied, entertaining mess.

Education, Education, Education won a ‘Fringe First’ in 2017 for the Wardrobe Ensemble. It seems, to my mind, a perfect choice for student performance. It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education. Headteacher Hugh (Fergus Head) has all the moves – watch him go in D:ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – wants the best for all his pupils but all his enthusiasm cannot remedy the fact that his school is falling apart and has porta-cabins for classrooms. His Deputy, Louise (Kelechi Hafstad), is trying to hold it all together with discipline and an imaginary semi-automatic, which is dodgy, surely. History teacher Paul (most convincing by Lewis Foreman) has seen too many awkward kids to bother with them anymore. Tim (Giorgio Bounous) is the gormless PE jock and Sue (Becca Chadder) is the dedicated English teacher who inhabits that lovely world where she would share Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with 14 year olds but without the resources of Games of Thrones. No wonder then that Tobias marvels at it all whilst quietly enjoying a confiscated cheestring.

A serious narrative is provided by Lauren’s story. Lauren Robinson is spot on as the difficult, challenging, pupil who shouldn’t be expelled but who probably will be. It’s good to learn, within Tobias’ retrospective account, that it’s Lauren who comes out to Berlin to visit him and to see a grown-up European country. Director Tom Whiston ensures that your sympathies go where they should.

It’s those twenty years, 1997 to 2017, that give the play its bite. Its frenetic pace and half daft characters are contained within a frame that exposes the optimism of that Labour promise. Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education (BBC 3 2012 -14) was brilliant and ridiculous. As a 60 minute stage show this production of Education, Education, Education cannot be telly but it’s a riot of understanding and good sense, which ain’t easy.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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The Last Witch (Traverse: 7 – 10 Nov.’18)

Fiona Wood as Helen and Deidre Davis as Janet Horne

“Gendered and topical sparks do fly but at its heart the story stays human, withering, and of its period.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

Put an eighteenth century clergyman in a Scottish play and you know the Enlightenment is going to be disputed. Put him alongside a buff Sheriff with silver buttons and you can be reasonably sure that a woman is going to cop it. Introduce the Devil and you’ll soon be smelling hellfire in the morning, rather than peat.

Welcome to Rona Munro’s The Last Witch from the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. Firebrand Theatre with director Richard Baron stoke it up in its first half and then let it blaze in the second. Gendered and topical sparks do fly but at its heart the story stays human, withering, and of its period. In 1727 Janet Horne of Loth parish, Dornoch, widowed mother of seventeen year old Helen, is accused of witchcraft (as was Helen), is locked up in the church tower, deprived of sleep over four days, confesses, is put in a barrel, is smeared with tar and set alight. She was the last person to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles.

Munro’s Janet, Deidre Davis, is much younger than the real Janet. Youthful, outspoken and defiant, she takes the Sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine), to her bed with no difficulty at all. She’s playful, brazen, and imaginative and is happy to have all believe that she ‘can do great magic’. However, ‘nothing so bad ever happens’, says an exasperated Helen of her mother, until the Sheriff – with his clothes back on – decides that she’s a shameless besom.

Whatever Janet’ skills with medicinal and intoxicating herbs she has not used them to meet the Devil. No, that trick is practised by Helen (Fiona Wood) who finds a long haired tinker who fits the part admirably in a teasing, clever performance by Alan Mirren. Strange then that the mood music before the play starts seemed to be a serenade for strings and not ‘The Deil Amang the Tailors’. There is fiddle music and dancing but the lightness of the piece is in Janet’s levity and in its choice moments of humour: the timing of neighbour Douglas Begg’s ‘Ye al’ right there, Janet?’ and how even Old Nick is afeart of crossing the border.

The second half is all about the irony of praising the Lord whilst being hauled and chained in ‘His’ kirk. Naturally it has more energy but, looking back, I missed the slow and poetic attention to the lives of crofters – the regard for rocks and shore, the bees, and the ‘wee, sleeping, safe creatures’. Perhaps that’s the point: the harsh, outsize opposition of law and order and church session to the defenceless and the wronged.

An all-seeing ‘eye’ is suspended over the crazed circle of the stage floor. It works well in this magnification of a sad, small story that still says a great deal and that manages to end affirmatively.

I have seen Firebrand productions before and this is another very good one.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 November)

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Twelfth Night (Lyceum: 14 September – 6 October ’18)

Dawn Sievewright as Lady Tobi and Guy Hughes as Andrew Aguecheek.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovi

“Truly festive and entertaining”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Where to begin with this eye-catching season opener? Well, you should accept that music is indeed the food of love and that Frank Zappa is a legend, and then go to 1966 for Freak Out, the debut album of The Mothers of Invention. Side one, track six, is How Could I Be Such a Fool? (Answer: in Malvolio’s case, stupendously) and on side two you’ll find Any Way the Wind Blows, (not so freaky; more early Beatles) which nicely covers Twelfth Night’s alternative title, What You Will, with sax’, flute and clarinet.

The ‘mothers’ of this co-production from Edinburgh’s Lyceum and Bristol’s Old Vic are Wils Wilson and Ana Inés Jaberes-Pita, director and designer respectively, who brought Cockpit to the Lyceum last October. And, Wowie Zowie (.. track 7), do they pull out all the stops this time around! If mellow vibes come colour saturated and swaying with the dance moves of the early 70s, then this Twelfth Night is in the mix.

Suave Duke Orsino may have musicians ‘attending’ but these actor-musicians displace him, helped by a grand piano centre stage and blinding, wonderful costume. Were those magenta or crimson loon pants on an elongated Curio (Meilyr Jones)? Andrew Aguecheek (Guy Hughes) is a winged vision in white, gifted by ABBA, on platform shoes. Lovelorn he may be but his outing on piano to start the second half is awesome. Aly Macrea directs the band with customary, unassuming coolness, while any resemblance to Frank Zappa is accidental. It’s a delight to hear Dylan Read sing and move as Feste, once you’ve stopped admiring the blooming purple peonies on his dress.

TwelfthNight'18.2

l to r. Dylan Read, Meilyr Jones, & Brian James O’Sullivan.

Maria wears her furry mules to mischievous and joyful effect. You can forget quite how vital she is to the pace of the piece, and played well – as here by Joanna Holden – how easy it is to like her at the expense of Viola and Olivia, laden as they are with love and identity. Malvolio, the major-domo of rectitude, of proper clothes and estuary English, has no chance but, boy, does he have a go at embracing the ‘other’ side! Christopher Green has taken on (and created) many parts but this is probably his largest codpiece to date. He is also a fine singer and together with Messrs. Jones, Hughes, Macrae, and Read you do – for once – get a truly festive and entertaining Twelfth Night.

But what of love, with or without drink and desire? Frankly, they’re all subdued by fun and playacting, which the text proves it can support. Olivia (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) suffers the pangs the most, possibly because she has grey trousers. Sir Toby becomes Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright) who belches less but has all the gusto of the portly knight and even has room for a moment of pregnant melancholy. Viola (Jade Ogugua) and Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) are the identical twins that you’re happy to take on trust and see reunited whilst Orsino (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) has the hauteur not to care in the slightest that he has married the ‘wrong’ twin. Only Antonio (Brian James O’Sullivan) is really disappointed in love and he wins a sympathetic “Ah’s” from the audience as he exits, hurt.

When you can accept that a lava lamp and a squeeze box is a police car you know that you’re in expert hands. This is quite a rare Twelfth Night, suffused with theatre, and I enjoyed it.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 19 October)

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Gut (Traverse: 20 April – 12 May ’18)

Kirsty Stuart and Peter Collins.
Photos. Mihaela Bodlovic.

‘Feel it!’

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

Turning over a toy box can be messy but upending the presumption of innocence is in an altogether different ballpark. What happens when a nice kind man in the queue at a place to eat helps grandma out and takes your three old to the toilet? You’re allowed a gut feeling about this one and it’s probably the right one? But are you sure, really, really sure?

OK, it’s not The Place to Eat up in John Lewis’ – writer Frances Poet can only go so far – but it might just as well be. As it is, Fisher-Price’s Laugh and Learn puppy takes the biscuit for product placement. Dad, Rory, another nice bloke, hasn’t found puppy’s On-Off switch and its happy-happy tune is doing his head in. It is not so funny for Mum, Maddy; not funny at all, for where there’s an edge in this ninety minute drama she is well and truly over it. And there’s no soft play area on the other side. Is it The Stranger who pushed her or did she do it all by herself?

It could not happen to a more ordinary, youngish, couple, which is precisely the point. We even have a Glasgow address: 65 Kelvindale Road – and Joshua (3) goes to Nursery and Granny Morven (Rory’s mother) helps out a lot, to begin with. First it’s the baby monitor and then it all goes wrong, which is where is the creative team get it just right. There’s a broad set, minimally dressed: a table and three chairs stage left, and a garden swing stage right; large rectangular panels, one of gauze, at the back. Colours are muted, contemporary greys and creams. The exceptional lighting design by Kai Fischer marks off areas that quickly isolate and focus attention. Various Strangers cast shadows, open to frightening doubt, that contrast with the chilling white of Maddy’s psychiatric stay. Michael John McCarthy’s music is spare and quietly ominous while Zinnie Harris’ direction is one keen judgement call after another. The overall effect is a silent ‘House’ in the grip of a familiar, media churned nightmare that cannot be shaken off.

George Anton and Kirsty Stuart.

The script is conversational, inviting immediate and natural responses that seem at odds with the enveloping paranoia. Kirsty Stuart as Maddy is never more convincing as a loving mother than when she details her appalling behaviour. Rory (Peter Collins), who loves her to bits, can sort out toy trucks forever and still not get close to her. His mother, Morven (so believable by Lorraine McIntosh) can only be bewildered and hurt. George Anton is seven different Strangers, sympathetic in one light, scary in another. Presence is all and Anton delivers each time. The impassive concern of his police officer is especially alarming.

The initial setup is a little shaky, rather plastic. Can Maddy be that brittle? But if that’s a weakness the stage work carries it all the way. Gut succeeds in demonstrating that once parenting turns into child protection then it is a nervy, mind shredding issue. Feel it! Stand behind a swing and you risk getting your teeth knocked out but you can get thrown off a see-saw and bang your head just as easily. That, for me, is the audience’s experience. Up and down, up and down, see the Stranger, and then it’s touch-and-go (so to speak) whether it’s playtime or, ‘Wallop!’ “Mum’s out of it”.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)

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Romeo and Juliet (Pleasance: 6 -10 March ’18)

Eliza Lawrence as Juliet and Douglas Clark as Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

“A very appealing production “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

 

Can Romeo and Juliet be refreshing? Deffo.

For a start, as with Heineken, there’s the beer. Verona’s birra is Mastro Matto’s; in 1594 quite possibly a thriving business for either the house of Montague or of Capulet. Beer is liberally served in this production. The Prologue opens Act 2 truly blattered, heels in hand. The invitation to the Capulet party is ‘Pray come and crush a cup of wine’ [… or bottle of lager].

Downstage right and centre there’s a café. Mercutio and Benvolio are often in there, sitting down with a beer and talking lewd. You can forget how this high romantic tragedy starts way down low and mucky with the bawdy Sampson thrusting women –  ‘being the weaker vessels’ –  to the wall. However, no chance of that in this production: the Prince and the Friar are women, the Nurse is on man-topping form and Juliet is a very self-possessed #MeToo 16 year old.

Romeo sits ‘off’, to the side of the platform stage, appalled yet entertained, as Mercutio summons Rosaline’s ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thigh’. He’s then up on the platform, facing forward, for the balcony scene with Juliet behind him at the front of the main stage. It’s a terrific, captivating effect, each speaking to the other but straight at the audience as well. A window on wheels turns around to frame, alternatively, either the inside or the outside of Juliet’s room. This works well as an occasional framing device and is typical of Director Finlay McAfee’s ‘eye’ on his audience and how it will see and interpret the action.

What with body bags on a stark blue- grey set, Love looks ‘death-mark’d’ from the start, but this is not, I felt, a certainty. There is more immediacy and irresolution in the course of this production than in many, which is always appealing in a play whose awful end is common knowledge. The fighting –  tricky when Health & Safety shrinks rapier to titchy (plastic?) dagger – relies on fist, boot, and head bashing which looked sufficiently dangerous to make you realise how fatal accidents are so often juvenile and hot-headed. Mind you, Romeo’s dispatch of Tybalt is definitely murder.

Michael Black as Benvolio with Douglas Clark, Romeo.
Photo: EUSC.

Eliza Lawrence is Juliet and does indeed ‘teach the torches to burn bright’. (Probably not accidental then that Mercutio and Romeo play around with an LED lenser.) This Juliet may be sweet but you can believe that her suicide is the result of an extraordinary love and not momentary despair. Douglas Clark plays  Romeo with the same verve and assurance that he brought to Alan in Equus three years ago. That does make his wrecked helplessness with the Friar at the news of his banishment close to unbelievable but this is still (another) outstanding performance. Kirsten Millar’s programme profile says she is ‘immensely excited’ to add another old lady to her ‘eclectic portfolio’ and you can only admire her cracking truthfulness! Esmée Cook is a Friar whose diction over the whole piece is admirably steady, which helps in a play that can pitch and yaw from one scene to the next. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller’s Capulet has attractive style – his jacket and shoes combo do half the talking – until he slaps his Juliet right across the face. Bam! And Will Peppercorn as Mercutio poses the usual problem: once he’s dead what’s to do without all that wit and energy? The draining effect of rainfall upon Romeo’s sleeping-bag in Mantua is actually genius!

As well as the yoof n’beer, it was Romeo sitting on the bed tying up his trainers after his few hours with Juliet that confirmed it. This is a very appealing production of Romeo and Juliet. Its effects may appear natural but are the result of new thinking and creative rehearsal. The musical score by Madison Willing – electro brooding Michael Nyman strings with grim rumbles – does ‘Tragedy’ proud, whilst the casual modern dress even gives it something of West Side Story. The Capulet ball, simply yet ingeniously staged, could have been in the Pear Tree. Does it serve Mastro Matto’s L’Ultima?

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 March)

Go to Romeo and Juliet at the EUSC

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Our Country’s Good (Bedlam: 26 February – 3 March)

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“Bold and disciplined”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Outstanding

Lashings of intelligence here. That and the knowledge that ‘the shoulder blades are exposed at about 100 lashes’. There’s also sand on the stage floor, figuratively blood stained, but handy for gritty effect and for when you want to represent a play as ‘a diagram in the sand’, as proof of what could be and what might be changed for the better whatever the wretched circumstances.

And Lord knows that Australia has been there and done that. In literary terms it’s a swift line of descent: Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore’ was published in 1986, Thomas Keneally’s ‘The Playmaker’ in 1987, and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good opened at the Royal Court, London, in September 1988. Historically it took eight months for the convict transports to get from Portsmouth to Botany Bay, arriving in January 1788. The action in Wertenbaker’s play – by now surely reckoned to be a modern ‘classic’ – is spread over five to six months. It is Edinburgh University’s official English Literature play of the year and this student production does it proud.

Of course, ‘Advance Australia Fair’ it ain’t. Major Robbie Ross (Amelia Watson) sees to that. He bitterly resents being in such an alien and depraved place, orders floggings for impertinence, and fears that any sign of weakness – ie. kindness – will result in revolt. Arguably it’s the toughest role because he is so singularly awful and Watson has the scowl and the whiplash voice to do it. He is opposed by Governor Arthur Phillip (Matthew Sedman) whose far-seeing humanity guides the play beyond the horror of its opening to its near jubilant close. Wertenbaker indicated that her play end with the ‘triumphant music of Beethoven’s 5th’ but perhaps that was felt to be too much for Bedlam on a freezing evening in February.

What Phillip does do is to require the production of George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer (1706), directed by theatre loving 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Jacob Baird). The fact that Clark only has two copies of the play and that some of his cast cannot read and that Ross regards him as a sorry excuse for a Marine makes it a tall order to carry out. Baird is well cast as officer class decent but his character is frustrated almost to breaking point, emotionally and sexually. The relief provided by The Recruiting Officer is palpable and is far better for him than pining at his fly buttons for his beloved Betsey Alicia back home.

So, here’s the pre-text of late Restoration comedy within a docudrama, with its 22 strong cast list of gentlemen heroes (2), wise man (1) and villain (1), and the rest (several) as good-for-nothing, not! Robert Sideway (brilliant by Domi Ucar), pick-pocket to the gentry, and glorious ac-tor is a scuttling hoot, establishing her melancholy and rehearsing her bow. He is being flogged on deck when the play begins so it is a defining moment when during the second rehearsal scene he completely upstages a brutal Ross. No such joy for Midshipman Harry Brewer (Gordon Stackhouse) tormented by guilt and by his jealous love for his ‘Duckling’ girl (Anna Swinton). Their time together is raw and explicit and (for young actors) pretty impressive. Tiffany Garnham convinces that her Liz Morden, violent, in chains and born to be hanged, can still be redeemed. Jack McConnell is John Arnscott, transported for life, and so pleased that he can ‘be’ someone else. Erica Belton, speaks wonderfully as Ketch, apprentice hangman, who wants to be an actor because he remembers some players coming to his village in Ireland where they were loved ‘like the angels’. Anna Phillips’ shy Mary Brenham owns a precious and appealing dignity from the start. Anubhav Chowdhury’s Caesar is from Madagascar and you have to wonder at the bad luck that got him into a British penal colony but his French accent and daft woes do provide easy laughs. Hannah Robinson manages to be both upper class twit Campbell and illiterate Dabby, bless her, who never gives up on getting back to the soft rain of Devon.

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Matthew Sedman as Wisehammer and Anna Phillips as Mary, behind. Photo: Louis Caro.

Two characters remain: Wisehammer (Matthew Sedman again) and the Narrator, the Aboriginal Australian. Both command attention but Sedman is outstanding. In this production the Narrator (Sophie Boyle) plays a signature phrase on the violin and her few linked lines are a reminder of the tragic consequences for her people that followed this European ‘entertainment’. Wisehammer, as you can guess, is something else: almost a gentle philosopher, certainly a writer, and Sedman’s careful Northern delivery nail the words, especially his simple Prologue that gives the play its title and it is intoned twice for effect. The fact that Ralph Clark reckons it would give Major Ross apoplexy is a quality judgement.

Our Country’s Good is serious drama and directors Luke Morley and Jane Prinsley take it seriously. This production is bold and disciplined, barely cut – if at all – and its actors work a demanding script with real attention. Yes, there’s some yelling – you would too if you’re being whipped – and it drowned Wisehammer’s astonishing, ghastly opening description of men and women ‘spewed from their country’. Naval uniform is in short supply and despite its appeal the thrust stage doesn’t work, but the actors being constantly visible, on or ‘off, does; and the onstage set design by Natasha Wood and Bryn Jones of a short mast, sail cloth and crossed spars is all that is needed.

I’m with Governor Phillip’s: ‘We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little’. There’s a conviction worth upholding.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 February)

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