Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play about a performance of The Recruiting Officer by a group of convicts in an 18th century Australian penal colony is one I’d frequently heard discussed, but never seen. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to watch Out Of Joint’s production this week at the Oxford Playhouse.
The play remains a firm favourite with exam boards, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a piece with layers of subtle meaning, fraught conflicts, and moral dilemmas. It’s almost a quarter of a century since the play was premièred in 1988, but as the show’s programme is quick to point out, we live in a time when economic pressures mean funding for the arts is similarly under threat, and thus the piece’s discussion of the purpose and value of theatre also remains resonant (although given that everyone watching has already opted to come to see a play, it inevitably comes with a slight feeling of preaching to the converted).
It’s a visually striking production, with a simple, flexible set used to good effect. There are also no real weak links among the cast: Dominic Thorburn is engaging as Lieutenant Ralph Clark, director of the colony’s production, and Laura Dos Santos delivers a nicely judged performance as his leading lady Mary Brenham. It’s hard not to be entertained (and touched) by Matthew Needham and Ciaran Owens as amiable convicts Robert Sideman and Ketch Freeman. There’s always a risk with a piece like this that the criminals will all be too likeable to be believable – or conversely, that they’ll be too unsympathetic to be likeable – but Kathryn O’Reilly and Helen Bradbury as Liz Morden and Dabby Bryant steer an expert course between spikiness and an underlying vulnerability.
I would, however, sometimes have liked a little more depth in some of the performances. Many of characters go on a significant emotional journey over the course of the play, and while the facts of this are always clearly depicted, the thoughts and feelings behind it are not always conveyed as vividly as they could be. This is not to say the play lacks heart, though: there are plenty of emotional highs and lows, and an ample supply of both tense moments and counterbalancing humour.
This is a polished, professional production, with plenty to offer – not just to school groups studying the text, but also to discerning theatre goers of all ages.