Marking 30 years since Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, ‘Ramps on the Moon’ have produced this refreshing, uplifting re-examination of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s classic play which preaches the power of theatre and the arts for social change.

Ramps on the Moon’s aims as a company and the themes in Our Country’s Good complement each other perfectly. They were formed under a consortium of theatres, including the Birmingham REP, and they aim to examine approaches to access in the theatre, combining audio descriptions and British Sign Language (BSL) as a way of enhancing their performances. They seek to tackle the under-representation of actors with disabilities and in Our Country’s Good, we see the power in giving voices to people who are typically excluded from access to the arts.

For those who may not be familiar with the plot, Our Country’s Good follows the true story of a group of convicts and one young officer in their attempt to put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in the Australian penal colony in 1787. We follow them through the rehearsal process and their eventual triumph, despite the threat of mutiny, lack of supplies and opposition from more senior officers.

In the show’s programme, director Fiona Buffini states that often people are ‘constrained by the social order and the way we think about other people and the way we see ourselves’. She says that ‘we should be using theatre as a means of escaping all of the constraints that we put on ourselves and society places on us’.

These constraints are evident in the play, as even the character Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who is arguably reformative in his approach to his treatment of the convicts, still says ‘I am not a convict, I don’t sin’. This statement is a comment on just how deep the beliefs we hold about class are rooted in our society. Clark truly believes that he could never possibly sin or do anything wrong as he is not one of ‘them’.

At a time when it seems that our country is more divided than ever, with arts funding being cut and its importance being diminished in school curriculum’s, Our Country’s Good is an important play. It beautifully demonstrates the huge impact that the involvement in the arts can have on people’s lives and is the perfect piece for this progressive company to take on.

The accessible elements of this performance are well incorporated into the production and the use of BSL simply becomes another form of expression for the actors to employ. It feels very natural and it was thoroughly refreshing to see that all of the actors have been chosen on merit entirely, with around 60% of the cast being D/deaf or disabled.

Some stand out performances include Caroline Parker, who plays the overlooked; and absolutely hilarious Meg Long, or ‘Shitty Meg’. Parker is used to expertly sign and speak for other characters on stage. In particular, her interpreting for Fifi Garfield’s Dabby Bryant is a delight, as Parker ensures that Garfield is still successfully interruptive to the growingly exasperated Lieutenant Clark’s auditions and rehearsals with great effect. While arguably the character of Sideway is a gift to any comic actor, Alex Nowak’s interpretation is top class. A highlight from him is when he cries ‘I’m being melancholy’ while preparing his entrance; based entirely on a performance he has allegedly seen by Garrick during his time in London.

Despite a few pacing issues; particularly during the scenes with the character of the Aboriginal Australian, where the impact of his messages are lost a little, the rehearsal sequences are where this production comes alive. You cannot help but feel sorry for Tim Pritchard’s Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who is hilarious as a man on the edge of his patience, all while vying for Mary Brennan’s affections.

In Our Country’s Good, the company have successfully achieved their aim to champion change in theatre so that it becomes the norm for disabled, D/deaf and non-disabled actors to perform alongside each other. The spirit and performances in this production meant that you cannot help but leave the theatre feeling uplifted. As Governor Arthur Philip states, ‘theatre is an expression of civilisation’, and this aptly sums up how and why we should be funding more companies like Ramps on the Moon to ensure that theatre is more representative of our society.

 

 

★★★★☆

Our Country’s Good is at the Birmingham Rep until the 2nd June. Tickets can be purchased here.