‘Our Country’s Good’ and so was this play!

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Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Directed by Chris Honer, Thursday, 25th April, Capitol Theatre, MMU

Words and photographs by Kevin Danson

My third time at MMU’s Capitol Theatre and once again it leaves me more than satisfied with everything about the performance. The setting, seating and sound adds to the experience of this intense, yet comic play. 
Our Country’s Good is a play about the first penal colony in Australia. On the shores of New South Wales in the late eighteenth century, the story concerns a group of convicts and Royal Marines. After noting how putting on a performance might arouse ‘pity and fear’ from the cast and audience of convicts, the Governor of the colony believes the convicts might reach redemption by putting on a show. Over the course of rehearsals of this play within a play, authority within the colony is challenged, relationships evolve, while others dissolve, taking with them communal justice and individual sanity. 
These third-year actors are incredibly talented. The play intentionally has a small cast to its required number of characters, allowing (or forcing) the actors to display their range of skill in one performance, sometimes even in one scene. This bumps up the respect I already have for these artists. Each character they incorporate bears no resemblance to the subsequent one. I know this is expected, but I can imagine how difficult it must be to nail an accent or physical trait every time they make their transformation. 
Left to right: Holly Fishman Crook, 
Simon Jenkins 

There is not one actor I can comment negatively upon, thankfully. MMU’s current third years make a strong ensemble cast. Instead of talking you through the play as a whole, I would like to mention a few actors individually. This is mainly due to the characters ascribed to them, as well as the personal spin they added to their representations.
Rory Thomas’ main character is the comedic Robert Sideway, a role that seems to have been written exactly for him. I follow his absurd, overly dramatic mannerisms as I follow the words of the play—intently. Though we witness his lashings at the start of the play, providing him with the audience’s sympathy, Rory and Robert carry with them a lightheartedness that softens some of the more intense scenes.
Hayley Gowland has been in all three of the plays I’ve seen here, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all of her performances. Hayley’s character; the intimidating convict of Liz Morden, is the main role she plays in this production. Her best scenes are the comedy scenes: Liz awkwardly attempts an imitation of a lady’s upper-class demeanor and hurls her learnt lines for the play at the Lieutenant without pause or necessary emotion. I wait for a stutter or a stumble, but instead I am left with a strong will to applaud.
Another two actors who make the play, for me, are Assad Zaman and Max Henry-Walsh. Assad executes swift changes from a mumbling Scottish Captain, Jemmy Campbell, to the convict, John Ascott, and the suffering midshipman, Harry Brewer. While his mutterings of a Rab C. Nesbitt kind draws in frequent chuckles from the audience, the psychological deterioration of the haunted and tormented Harry make me feel like a spy, as if I am on the shore with him close by, watching as he gradually breaks down. I have seen Assad play a small role in one of the sketches in, Tonight at 7:30 (originally Tonight at 8:30), which did not show his range of acting. I feel like this performance has definitely shown his capability as a professional actor.
Left to right: Max Henry-Walsh, Simon Jenkins 

Like Assad, I have seen Max in a smaller role in, Tonight at 7:30 (originally Tonight at 8:30). Unable to discern his true abilities beforehand, Our Country’s Good has given room for Max to demonstrate his skills by portraying two extremely different characters; Ketch Freeman, an Irishman transported to the colony for killing a sailor, and the Scottish Major Robbie Ross. While the cheeky chappie of Ketch was pleasing to watch, making me want to go for a country stroll and maybe jump in the air and kick my heels together, the Major had me seething. I was once told that if I feel hatred for a character who is meant to be bad, then the actor is doing good work. Kudos to Max! He had me folding my arms, clenching my fists and shaking my head. His accents were infallible as was the mutation between his characters.
In addition to the cast, another part I enjoy is the intertheatricality. References are made to the way in which inequality within the colony—between the convicts and the Royal Marines—is compared to the inequality Socrates expressed in his plays, and was therefore punished for by death.
Also present are the undertones of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; a play within a play, these actors acting as actors, and the haunting ghost. My education seems to be paying off.
Left to right: Rory Thomas, Holly Fishman Crook, Hayley Gowland, 
Simon Jenkins, Mabel Wright 

This group of third years is tight and the hours they put into rehearsals obviously pays off. Each one is in the production because of their talents, and although not all have been mentioned individually this time, I’m sure I will get round to bolstering their talents soon.
The Manchester School of Theatre is my new local. These students put on a show well worth watching. Although I was unable (due to periods of lethargy) to follow up the previous performances with a review, the next two; Brontë, (15th – 18th May) and, A Bright Room Call Day, (5th – 8th June), will be.

Students get tickets for £2.50 on Thursdays! 

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU who likes to share his ramblings. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash

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