The Original Theatre Company, in association with Basingstoke’s Anvil Arts, is presenting Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning tale of the theatrical antics of penal colonists in Botany Bay as part of this year’s Eastbourne Festival. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a major highlight in the programme.
Set in 1788, the play tells the story of how criminals, who had been taken on the first fleet of ships to the new convict colony in Australia, came together to perform George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. This sometimes brutal tale is brought to life by a superb company which shows just exactly how good an ensemble piece can be.
Aden Gillet, in one of the two major roles he takes in the show, plays Captain Arthur Phillip, the Governor-in-Chief of New South Wales. It is he who sanctions the staging of the play-within-a-play, with Christopher Harper taking the role of Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the director of the piece.
With a cast of just ten people to play all 22 roles, there’s a great deal of coat and hat changing but, as a shining testament to some brilliant performances, every character is portrayed with both depth and personality. Actors playing officers create brand-new personae as convicts with consummate ease and, although a little overwhelming in the first couple of scenes, it works well.
Playing both the evil Major Robbie Ross and hangman Ketch Freeman, Adam Best is a delight to watch. He brings both characters to life so well that, when he is bullying the convicts, he is very easy to despise but, in the very next scene, when he is telling one of the convicts how he wants to hang them without hurting them unnecessarily, he is so tender that tears almost flow.
Other notable performances come from Phillip Whitchurch, who delivers a brilliant portrayal of the apparently schizophrenic Midshipman Harry Brewe, Seun Shote, as the mysterious Aboriginal Australian who reappears throughout the piece and Emma Gregory who, at the beginning of Act Two, delivers a fantastic monologue in 18th century criminal slang (which was surprisingly understandable) and who also displays a defiant dignity when accused of a crime she didn’t commit.
Whether this piece is seen as an historical tale of convicts in Australia, or a poignant question about the value of prisoner rehabilitation, it is certainly superb production with passion, emotion and a lot of folk singing.