Lyric students stage play of power of drama

What could be a more appropriate end-of-course production for the Lyric Drama Studio’s 12 aspiring young actors than a play about putting on a play?

Our Country’s Good tells the true story of a ragbag cast of convicts, transported to Australia in 1787, whose lives took on a new direction when they auditioned for a part in the antipodean premiere of George Farquhar’s Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer.

With only two copies of the text, a cast of semi-literate actors and a leading lady about to be hanged, conditions are hardly ideal. As rehearsals begin, remarkable changes take place in the relationship between the convicts and in the officers’ attitude towards them. The play documents the trials and tribulations of the convicts’ production: from the initial idea to the opening night. As one of the characters observes, “Unexpected situations are often matched by unexpected virtue in people.”

The Lyric’s Creative Learning Co-ordinator, Philip Crawford, who is also directing the piece, said: “The play is essentially about the transformative power of drama. Captain Arthur Phillip, the Governor of the penal colony, was a visionary leader, inspired by Socrates, who believed that the prisoners could begin a new life in a new land. He declared: ‘The theatre is an expression of civilisation,’and commissioned the play by George Farquhar (born in Londonderry) to celebrate the birthday of King George III.”

It is 25 years since Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court Theatre before transferring to the West End and Broadway, winning major awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, the text has become a modern classic.

This cast of young actors, aged 18-25, come from across Northern Ireland but they have been joined in this final production by a professional actor from London, 23-year-old Clifford Lyonette, as part of the training experience.

The cast are Shireen Azarmi and Carla Bryson, from Dunmurry; Luke Bannon from Downpatrick; Roseanna Barry from Comber; Gary Crossan from Derry; Thomas Finnegan from Newry; Anna Gonzalez from Warrenpoint; Chris Grant from Banbridge; Matthew Jeffrey from east Belfast; Stefan McCusker from Lurgan; Amy McElhatton from Omagh; and Harry Thrush from Bangor.

The Lyric Drama Studio is a six-month intensive programme, which consists of weekly skills-building workshops and masterclasses with a range of visiting artists and theatre practitioners. The course culminates in a production on one of the Lyric stages. It is currently offered free to those who have been selected by audition and can demonstrate the required commitment.

Our Country’s Good will take place in the Naughton Studio from Thursday 28 to Saturday 30 March at 8pm, with a Saturday matinee at 3pm.