Ramps on the Moon is a consortium of six theatres that each year takes a turn to produce a touring show featuring a cast of D/deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors. This is not inclusion as afterthought. It is built into the process of creation, woven into the fabric of the show.
Last year’s production was Kerry Michael’s revelatory staging of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, in which the “deaf, dumb and blind” protagonist was played by a Deaf actor. This year, it’s the turn of Nottingham Playhouse and the chosen play is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s hymn to the humanising power of theatre, Our Country’s Good.
Set in an 18th-century Australian prison colony, it depicts the efforts of a group of convicts to put on a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. It takes some time for British officer Ralph Clark (Tim Prichett) to convince his colleagues that there is any worth in allowing the convicts to put on a play. But as the lengthy and occasionally combative rehearsal process gathers steam, the convicts grow in confidence. They take ownership of their voices.
Our Country’s Good is a play that actively questions the roles that people are assigned, on stage and in life, and the power of theatre to create social change. Communication is central to Fiona Buffini’s production. When characters use BSL, other actors speak their lines. This creates a kind of wonderful polyphony. Those speaking or signing for others are fully integrated into the piece. They watch on as observers or, as in the case of the scene in which Ralph tries to persuade his fellow officers of the merit of his theatre project, the signing becomes a central part of the action. There’s a generosity to this approach that permeates the staging.
In many productions of Wertenbaker’s play, doubling is used in such a way that the cast play both the officers and convicts. Buffini’s production has a cast of 17 and doubling is only used on occasion, but in keeping with the spirit of the production everyone gets a moment to glow.
Pritchett emotionally anchors the play, while Gbemisola Ikumelo brings humour and fire to her role as convict Liz Morden, bellowing her lines at speed. Alex Nowak is hugely entertaining as Sideway, a pickpocket with thespian ambitions who fancies himself the next Garrick. Tom Dawze brightens with excitement at the wonder of words, as the gentle, intelligent Wisehammer. Caroline Parker, switching nimbly between bawdy prostitute and one of the more scientifically minded of the officers, frequently becomes the bridge between the spoken and signed elements of the production
The pacing of some early scenes is on the slow side and the design often economical. It’s not as exuberant and earth-shaking a production as Tommy, but nor is it trying to be. Wertenbaker’s play is frequently performed, but the nature of Buffini’s staging manages to bring its themes to the surface in fresh and interesting ways, while demonstrating the enduring power of theatre, to liberate the spirit, to unlock the imagination, and to make people visible, to others as well as themselves.