The critics: Actors and convicts: compare and contrast

theatre; Our Country's Good Young Vic Handbag Lyric Hammersmith Alarms and Excursions Gielgud Handbag Lyric Hammersmith Alarms and Excursions Gielgud, W1
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The Independent Culture
Which play? Three words. Four syllables. Hey, everybody - let's do the show right here in the penal colony! Easy.

Our Country's Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is 10 years old. It's beginning to count as a modern classic, and I guess the based-on-truth tale is well known: 1788. New South Wales. The first convict fleet arrives. An enlightened governor encourages a young officer to civilise the prisoners through drama, with Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. And, against all odds, the magic of theatre prevails. So, A Chorus Line in chains? Fame on the fatal shore? Well, it does rather tend that way. But I suppose the work's strength is that it can chuff a variety of audiences. The Young Vic's anniversary revival, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, should appeal pretty widely.

On one level, it's a bit school- play-ish: a bit of a history lesson, a costume drama of Redcoats and prison rags, many boldly and simply-drawn characters, plus instructive debates on the purpose of theatre (passages with "A-level set text" written all over them). The production handles this with an attractively casual dignity. There's little in the way of pointed stage-pictures or set- pieces, but the setting always feels solid, even when the acting doesn't.

Then there's an aspirational play-in-production comedy, with more severe obstacles than usual: the cast are brutalised and largely illiterate, and liable to miss rehearsals through being flogged, shackled or put on Death Row. But they rise and triumph, and so does the nervous, bashful young Lieutenant Clark (Stephen Beresford), who is directing them.

You get "rude mechanicals" fun - the convicts squabbling for parts, the natural-born ham revealed ("I am being, melancholy. I saw Mr Garrick being melancholy once"). You get touching uplift, with a star suddenly born when Mary the mousey gamine (Sarah Walton) breaks unprompted into the most graceful language of formal gesture.

But there's also - the best of the play, I think - an acute dramatisation of the actor's job. And here, the fact that the players are also convicts makes for a very apt embodiment of acting's awkward vulnerabilities. When Mary and Dabby (Michele Austin) first approach the prim lieutenant, they suspiciously, rudely, flirtatiously stalk him, not quite believing they're not wanted simply as prostitutes. The scene is a piquant bringing- out of the sex and power-play involved in any audition. In a later rehearsal scene, Clark protests against the intrusive, mocking presence of two other officers with an odd word: "There is a modesty attached to the process which must be respected." "Modesty? Modesty!" comes the Major's derisive answer, surveying this crowd of brutes and tarts. He could be talking about any actors, who seldom seem the most modest of people. But it's a true word. Wertenbaker stages a fine defence of the profession in which swank and shame are so necessarily mixed together.

But I'm afraid the play as a whole panders to one of the profession's fondest myths: the power of theatre to transform the world. At any rate, the evidence is stacked much too warmly: almost every character is very nice. The authorities are extremely indulgent. The convicts all have hearts of gold. The only real barrier to a triumphant resolution is the cruel Major, who's not much more than a comic villain.

Handbag is the new play by Mark Ravenhill, who wrote the widely rated Shopping and F---ing, and it points to a sadder truth about the stage: only there could such a helplessly perfunctory bit of writing reach a public without detection.

The plot runs like an issue-stuffed soap. A pair of professional-class gay couples (2F, 2M) decide to make a baby, to be "mummy and mummy and daddy and daddy". By the time Baby is born, both partners not involved in the conception are involved in exploitative relationships with disturbed underclass youngsters. Trouble. The couples split up. But the youngsters get together, and then they steal the baby, and...

Motivation is entirely ad lib. Characters turn on a sixpence according to the scheme. Emotions switch on and off like gas. Token contemporary bogies - surveillance cameras, market research - get dropped in here and there. There's plenty of simulated sucking off, licking out and shooting up. Lots of synchronised shouting. The baby ends up dead, covered in cigarette burns.

No doubt, as with Shopping and F---ing, there'll be some kindly souls who find this a dark and uncompromising portrayal of modern manners, and others who find it, at least, excitingly dangerous. There may even be those who see an awful warning against homosexual parenting. But it seems simpler to say that it's utterly factitious theatrical flim-flam, with not a moment of truth in it. As such, it's conceivably enjoyable but low on invention (I mean, the baby: not even partially eaten).

There's also a counterpoint sub-plot set in the 19th century, which continues the child-care theme and gives the play its title. The cast double as copybook oppressive-repressed Victorians, two of whom are the younger selves of Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell (handbag!). Another is an emotionally crippled philanthropist-cum-disgusting pervert, who ... no, I can't go on, it's just too stupid. The Actors Touring Company play it no better than it needs.

One incident from Handbag - an act of fellatio interrupted by a bleeping pager - might almost have turned up in Michael Frayn's Alarms and Excursions. Or rather, that is absolutely unimaginable. But as these eight playlets about the perils of modern technology are the subject of Robert Butler's feature (see page 4), I'll just say that, if such an incident had been included, it would have been the best moment by a long shot.

'Our Country's Good': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363), to 31 October; 'Handbag': Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 10 October.

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