Now a venerable 71 years old, former Royal Court boss Max Stafford-Clark is not a man afraid to revisit a former glory or two.
But if there’s the slightest air of polishing the trophy cabinet in reviving this Timberlake Wertenbaker classic – the premiere of which Stafford-Clark directed at the Court in 1988 – this is far from gratuitous laurel-resting.
Wertenbaker’s play concerns the transformative effect of theatre upon a ragtag group of convicts, shipped to Australia in the 1780s, and treated as subhuman by the resentful marines charged with establishing the colony.
The parallels between both ’80s and austerity Britain are writ large, and coming off the back of a year when funding cuts caused Stafford-Clark’s Out Of Joint company to slim down its programme, it’s a pointed choice of revival.
Moreover, it remains an exceptional piece of writing. There is the potential for mawkishness in this tale of a group of – largely blameless – convicts who are afforded a measure of dignity by the efforts of ambitious young lieutenant Ralph Clark (Dominic Thorburn) to direct them in a production of George Farquhar’s 1706 farce ‘The Recruiting Officer’. But while the end is uplifting, the shadow of injustice lingers.
Wertenbaker writes mostly unsentimentally and always interestingly, conjuring a deliciously detailed world of salty characters and unabashedly numerous subplots, all seasoned with an ironic staginess. In one of the funniest scenes, Clark berates his heavily doubled cast – themselves played by a heavily doubled cast –– for suggesting that an audience might find it difficult to follow what’s going on.
Stafford-Clark directs with a lightness of touch which avoids both shouty polemic and undue melodrama. And the cast is first rate, the women in particular: Lisa Kerr is charismatic and fabulously complicated as the sharp-eyed Duckling Smith, while the emotional blossoming of Kathryn O’Reilly’s hard-nosed Liz Morden is poignant and painful.