Our Country's Good review – new voice for the silenced in Wertenbaker's penal colony drama

Nottingham Playhouse
Ramps on the Moon uses sign language and captioning brilliantly in a striking update of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s historical humanist play

‘People who have no imagination shouldn’t go to the theatre,” declares Dabby (Fifi Garfield) in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, inspired by the true story of the first play staged on Australian soil. The actors were recently transported convicts. What happens when people barred from culture start to have access to it and, more importantly, make it?

Under the benign eye of the governor, Arthur Phillip (Kieron Jecchinis), Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Tim Pritchett) stages George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – despite a growing food shortage, the imminent threat of execution hanging over some of the cast and opposition from officers who believe convicts need punishment, not plays and playing.

Wertenbaker’s play demonstrates how doing, not watching, can give a voice to those who are normally voiceless, bringing personal and, potentially, social change. It is an apt choice of work for a time when the arts in schools is threatened.

It’s also a snug fit for Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of six theatres collaborating with Graeae to produce an annual touring show that integrates d/Deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers and creatives.

Watch Our Country’s Good cast in rehearsal on YouTube

Aesthetics and accessibility combine brilliantly in the way signing and captioning are woven together and in the way characters start helping each other find a voice. Speaking out becomes a matter of life and death, with Gbemisola Ikumelo starkly moving as illiterate thief Liz Morden, who stares death in the eye and understands she does not need to be defined by what others call her.

The play has its clunky moments. Fiona Buffini’s production begins awkwardly, needs more pace and doesn’t always locate the comedy. But the evening works a slow transforming magic, and there are some lovely performances, particularly by Alex Nowak as am-dram ham Sideway, and Tom Dawze as Wisehammer, a man who knows the painful subversive beauty of words.

• At Nottingham Playhouse until 24 March. Box office: 0115-941 9419. Then touring until 2 June.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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