Our Country’s Good. Out of Joint Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 23-11-12

Production photograph by Robert Workman.

Our Country’s Good is a modern classic- generally regarded as one of the best plays of the last century. It won several high profile theatre awards on both sides of the Atlantic for its writer Timberlake Wertenbaker in 1988 and it is now being given a revival by its original director Max Stafford Clark for Out of Joint Theatre Company which is touring before a short London run.
It is a completely authentic piece of writing based on original sources and using characters based on real convicts who put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in their penal colony in the 1780’s. It is a piece of writing which has both a clear and rigidly formal structure and a great heart. These convicts are dangerous people who know suffering and injustice and their captors are men far from home who are struggling with their own prejudices and limitations as they dispense horribly cruel justice and begin to wonder whether it is justified or morally beneficial. How far the convicts are capable of redemption and moral growth is one of the central issues of the play. Theatre may have the possibility to transform lives and give dignity but it may also be a subversive force which destroys the fragile status quo. Which will it be? The young officer who directs the play believes in the first possibility, supported by the colony’s governor, and in spite of appalling difficulties the rehearsals go forward. As the story plays out there is both broad comedy as the novice actors struggle, two moving love stories between officers and convict women, tragedy and transcendence. These are full blooded characters facing a situation packed with drama, the lifeblood of a great play.

Dominic Thorburn as Ralph Clark and Laura Dos Santos as Mary Brennan.
Production photograph by Robert Workman.

This is a real ensemble piece, a play where the company work as a whole mostly playing two or even three parts and it needs to be fast and minutely organised. This demands an outside eye and a disciplined approach and it is where a director can really earn their fee. Max Stafford Clark obviously couldn’t know the play any better having already directed a fine original production and his skill allows you to marvel quietly as the perfect clockwork of the staging moves forward and concentrate on the characters. They are worth concentrating on, well played and dynamic by a mostly very experienced cast. The women are particularly strongly played. Laura Dos Santos has a nice simple, shy goodness as Mary Brennan, protected by her friend Dabby Bryant, a lively spirited performance by Helen Bradbury. Lisa Kerr is particularly moving as Duckling Smith and it is not difficult at all to imagine that Kathryn O’Reilly’s Liz Morden is the most dangerous of the women- though even she is not without a vulnerable side. Many of these people have been driven to do what they did by desperation not wickedness.

Ian Redford as Midshipman Harry Brewer and Lisa Kerr as Duckling Smith.
Production photograph by Robert Workman.

The officers of the penal colony are a diverse bunch, and in some ways they have also been deported. Their situation is also harsh and they are just as vulnerable to the severe conditions and the threat of starvation as their captives. They are drawn to find comfort from the convict women, blurring the boundaries further, and while some of them revel in the cruelty they are asked to dispense others question their own morality and dignity. Ralph Clark, the young officer who directs the play, is one of the second kind. Dominic Thorburn gives him a touching dignity and watching him try to hold onto his sense of human goodness and loyalty in the face of appalling difficulties is fascinating. The play is as much a lifeline to him as it is to the convicts and allows him to grow and find love and compassion as he works on it. His mentor the governor, Captain Arthur Freeman, is given great dignity by John Hollingworth, who also plays the convict John Wisehammer. This is a clever piece of doubling within the play as it is clear that Wisehammer could very easily have taken on a role of that kind had life dealt him different cards. I was very moved by Ian Redford’s performance as midshipman Harry Brewer. Harry is desperate for love and warmth in a harsh world and uncertain of whether he has really found it with Duckling, who he loves desperately.

Watching this story unfold and knowing that it is based on truth you can’t help but be humbled by the strength of the human spirit and how it may be able to retain a capacity for love, dignity and compassion against all the odds. Certainly a great play and one which has stood the test of time better than most. This story will never become untrue or outdated. It is a portrait of a fascinating moment in history which can still speak to us now.

Top Girls. Out of Joint and Chichester Festival Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 10-03-12

Helen Bradbury as Patient Griselda. Photo by John Haynes.

Caryl Churchill is one of our very best writers for the stage. I think that there are two main reasons for this. First, her writing is always theatrical and full of ideas that you will not find anywhere else. This should be an obvious first goal for a dramatist but it is surprisingly hard to achieve. Secondly, when she writes dialogue she understands that most of the time people don’t listen to each other. She is a writer who is always searching for something new and coming up with what you least expect, but those two characteristics make her work distinctive, fresh and challenging. It isn’t always easy to read on the page, but since that isn’t what it was meant for this is probably as good a recommendation as any.

Her play Top Girls, written in 1982 at the height of Thatcherism, has been given a new production by its original director Max Stafford Clark. We are so lucky. It is one of her best plays, widely regarded as a classic now, and the first act is one of the finest pieces of stage writing of the twentieth century. This is a big thing to say but I do mean it and I’m not the only one to say it. The reaction at the end, when I saw it at a packed matinee at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, was extraordinary. A few beats of silence, a rush of applause, followed by a hum of excited chatter as lit up faces turned to each other to talk. None of them were suggesting ice creams.

Alix Dunmore as Lady Nijo. Photo by John Haynes.

Alix Dunmore as Lady Nijo. Photo by John Haynes.

So what was it that got us all talking? It’s a dinner party. Marlene, (Caroline Catz) a pushy, power dressing eighties woman has organised a get together at La Prima Donna restaurant to celebrate her promotion at the employment agency where she works. From that simple starting point, as we meet Marlene’s guests, Caryl Churchill conjures up a surreal, moving and very funny meditation on women and their treatment throughout history. They are women from different centuries and cultures but they greet each other and talk as intimate friends, sharing their experiences, talking over each other, ignoring each other, upstaging each other, and empathising with each other, as the meal descends (or perhaps is elevated) into a kind of drunken celebratory chaos. Dull Gret, (Victoria Gee) conjured out of a Breughel painting eats, steals and grunts her way through the meal. Lady Nijo, (Alix Dunsmore) the Japanese courtesan of an Emperor who then became a Buddhist nun, is still locked into the world of the court, clothes and status in spite of this, and looking for understanding and release from her pain. Izabella Bird, (Kirsten Hazel Smith) the Victorian lady traveller fights to get a word in edgeways to tell her story which seems very astonishing and dramatic to her but pales when set against those of the other guests. Patient Griselda, (Helen Bradbury)  the long suffering shamefully treated wife from Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale radiates a goodness and tolerance in the face of  injustice which is looked down on by some of the others but understood very well by Lady Nijo. Pope Joan, (Esther Ruth Elliott) has the most astonishing (and true) story. She masqueraded as a man in order to make her way through the hierarchy of the Catholic church and become pope, before becoming pregnant by her chamberlain, giving birth during a papal procession and being stoned to death as a punishment. She is kindly but remains aloof from the others, happy to refrain from trying to evangelise given that she is a heresy herself. It’s all quite astonishing, both in the original idea and in its execution and visually stunning to watch.

Kirsten Hazel Smith and Caroline Catz in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls Picture: Robert Workman

The other acts can’t match that kind of bravura, but there is little wonder in that. We are shown Marlene’s work life and her family, including the daughter that she abandoned and dumped on her sister. We see how she got to be where she is, how empty it has turned out to be for her, and the heavy price that both she and those around her have had to pay for it. Her daughter Angie is particularly well drawn. She is an eager, likable, not very bright, lump of a girl without much of a future, who has only a younger friend who she plays with to support her. The scene between the two of them is a very delicate and truthful portrait of the intensity and cruelty of early teenage female friendship. I found the office scenes less gripping, possibly because things have moved on for the better, at least to some extent, since they were written. What they show, however wrong, is common knowledge now, but the vicious, loving confrontation between the two sisters at the end of the play still strikes at the heart and the way that an awkward, limited young girl has become trapped without hope or opportunities, having being let down by a mother who doesn’t care about her, still resonates powerfully. The historical women suffered shockingly, mostly at the hands of men, but we are left wondering whether modern day women really have it so good after all.

The production is beautifully acted, lit and designed. That first scene requires visual flair, great characterisation, surefooted technical ability and faultless timing and the seven actresses ( not forgetting Emmy Sainsbury as the constantly busy waitress) playing it clearly relished the challenge and pulled it off faultlessly. It was a joy to watch and I am quite sure that none of them will ever forget how lucky they were to have the chance to play it. The later scenes were also beautifully done and very well characterised. I felt for all of them except Marlene, and thankfully Caroline Catz played Marlene truthfully without going overboard and making her into a monster. You felt that she was going to have a very hard lesson to learn one day, and while it might well destroy the woman that we were seeing in front of us when it happened, she wasn’t quite ready to learn it yet.

This is a great play, it really is, and I am thankful that I got the chance to see Max Stafford Clark’s second production of it, having missed the first. If ever a play needed a great director this one does, one who is able to help a very talented cast showcase a great, but very challenging, play and make the writing the star.

A Dish Of Tea With Doctor Johnson. Out of Joint at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 28-02-11

A Dish of Tea With Dr Johnson is like a rich fruit cake stuffed full of wit and bon mots. It has been adapted by the two performers, Ian Redford and Russell Barr, along with the director Max Stafford Clark for Out of Joint theatre company and it delivers exactly what the title promises, never a bad thing. We are welcomed into Dr Johnson’s household and allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation of the great man and his biographer James Boswell. As they talk, sometimes to each other and sometimes directly to us as guests of the house, we are drawn into Dr Johnson’s life and times and allowed to get to know a complex and difficult man with a large heart, a sharp wit and a mighty intellect. It is a clever script, fast paced, funny and touching, and just about manages to get away with cramming in more of Johnson’s familiar quotes into an hour and a half than it has any right to.

The acting throughout is very good. As well as playing Boswell Russell Barr also plays other people who were around Dr Johnson, including King George III, Lady Flora MacDonald and Oliver Goldsmith. The most touching of these other characters is Mrs Hester Thrale, his closest friend and confidante. People wondered then exactly what was going on between them, and we are still left wondering now. All of these characters are sketched in quickly and skilfully with the smallest of details and he does a very good job. Ian Redford is a large warm irascible presence as Dr Johnson, bringing him to life convincingly, not easy when he is asked to play a man who was very definitely a one off, one of the most remarkable men of his time.

There is a third performer on stage and I know that at least one of the actors won’t mind her taking up part of this review as she belongs to him. Katie is an elderly black and white Jack Russell who Russell Barr rescued from a difficult time stuck in a tower block and she is adorable. It has to be said though, that while she is blessed with great stage presence, playing Hodge the cat is a bit too much of a stretch for her- well outside her range. She performed with great enthusiasm for us in Scarborough, eating her dinner with impressive attention to detail and even part building by managing (after some effort) to get up onto one of the chairs, gaining a round of applause and enjoying an unintended moment in the spotlight.

A small treat of a show with more substance to it than this kind of theatre sometimes has. It is so good to see theatre of this kind in Scarborough. Chris Monks, the artistic director of the Stephen Joseph is obviously making a big effort to broaden the range of shows that come here and allow us to see touring shows that we might not have been able to see in the past. I really hope that he is able to continue this policy in the current financial climate as it is enormously welcome.