Timberlake Wertenbaker's 1988 play has achieved modern classic status thanks to numerous revivals around the world and its place on school and university curriculums. On the one hand this academic weight threatens to stifle any production that can quickly feel too deliberate and schematic, but this production attempts to present a fresh take on well trodden territory. The broad-stroke themes inspire discussion and debate beyond the environment of the play itself, but I never feel satisfied that Wertenbaker lets her characters enjoy these discussions internally, which add to my frustration with this play as being more of a topic for discussion than a piece to enjoy in the moment.
Director Nadia Fall attempts to bring a freshness to the text, using the vast Olivier drum revolve to evoke the barren and inhospitable land of Australia with which the convicts and Officers have developed the first colony. She begins the piece by showing the ocean crossing, giving solid context at the top of the play, but doesn't handle the movement of time effectively enough following this to build the atmosphere needed to understand the everyday conditions. Instead we're given shocking visuals of the treatment the convicts receive, but nothing of the more basic domestic life to provide an effective contrast.
In an attempt to educate and occupy the convicts in this new land perky Lieutenant Ralph Clark attempts to stage a production of Farquhar's 'The Recruiting Officer', using just two scripts and rehearsing against the pressures of both his superiors and the convicts who struggle to connect with the comedy.
Watching actors act 'rehearsing' a play will always feel like the Rude Mechanicals, and in this context is used to allow Wertenbaker's take away lines to land successfully. There is a knowing audience chuckle as Lieutenant Ralph exclaims “People who can't pay attention shouldn't go to the theatre” - a phrase that the Barbican should have inscribed over their entrance this season. The play is at its most powerful when the nature of art and the redemptive power of theatre is discussed, which inspires acute thought and areas for probing discussion, as much now as it did when the play first premiered.
It's the humour within the play that comes off most successfully between the convicts, each having their own idiolect and in this case distinguishable regional accent. Jodie McNee is compelling as troublemaker Liz Morden, and it's her story that becomes the main focus of the play, rather than the officer-inmate relationship between Ralph Clark and Mary Brenham, which lacks any spark or desire.
The acting is relatively patchy across the board, and it is the convicts who land better than the Officers. Ashley McGuire's bullish Dabby Bryant holds most of the energy in her scenes, equally matched by Jonathan Dryden Taylor and Matthew Cottle who resist falling upon stock territory. Shalisha James-Davis is stiff and difficult to watch as Duckling Smith – playing just one side of the complex character and fading into the background. Cyril Nri lacks any weight or natural authority as Captain Arthur Phillip, feeling overly mannered and works too hard to fill the auditorium.
Fall attempts to suggest constant danger by using an Aborigine presence to haunt each scene, but instead of highlighting the culture clash and the horrific truth of a British invasion on already occupied soil, it has the opposite effect. The Imperial Colony is observed with curiosity – but with just one lone vision this lacks appropriate weight or focus, that has the potential to give a wholly refreshing edge to the drama, if fully realised.
Cerys Matthews has provided a new soundtrack to the production, blending folk, spiritual and original music to evoke the atmosphere, and the piece ends not with the usual blast of Beethoven's Fifth but with a shrouded air of expectation, pressure and possibility.
"The evening could still move a bit more swiftly, but does justice to a landmark play."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"And yet the production is overwhelmingly successful. It brings to vivid, splendidly orchestrated life the earthy, scabrous humour amongst the convicts; the brutality of their treatment; and the fractiousness of the naval officers living on their nerves at the other side of the world."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"But there is a major misstep and that lies in former pop star Cerys Matthews’s much-trumpeted new score. It’s a peculiar mix of folk tunes and contemporary sounds which sometimes seems inconsequential and, at others, threatens to completely undermine the play’s emotional power."
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph