Our Country's Good is a highly-charged play about convicts transported to Australia more than 200 years ago, but it has a central message that reverberates across the centuries and carries a worrying reminder of modern day midsdemeanours much closer to home which could threaten the theatre company staging the production.

Based on a true story and real-life characters, it tells how the convicts are allowed to stage a play, much to the chagrin of the less-enlightened and hard-bitten military men among those charged with running the first penal settlement Down Under.

The more liberal-minded Governor and a majority of officers, eager to witness any redemptive qualities brought out by the project, wisely give their backing to the idea, stressing that theatre is 'an expression of civilisation' .

How ironic that in real life, the hugely-respected Out Of Joint theatre company responsible for this touring version of Our Country's Good that finishes a national tour at the Theatre Royal, Windsor this week, is facing an uncertain future. Despite an extensive and exhaustive 20 years of bringing excellent theatrical productions to venues across six continents, including our own National Theatre and Royal Court, cuts in grants to the arts mean it faces a £100,000 shortfall.

No wonder the actors at Windsor on the opening night on Tuesday seemed so emotionally in tune with the characters they were portraying.

There was a full house, including what seemed like a couple of coachloads of teenage students eager to view a work which is now on the A level drama syllabus.

It's not a play for the faint-hearted - neither on stage nor in the audience - though mercifully most of the barbaric punishments meted out to the unfortunate convicts are enacted off stage.

Our Country's Good
Our Country's Good
 

The young cast, with several months of touring under their belts, including staging the play in the US and Canada this summer, meet the challenges of this most-demanding of works with unhesitating enthusiasm and skill. They even seem to have had coaching in spitting, with three of the women venting their anger on one unfortunate individual with some well-aimed, generous amounts of sputum!

Several of them are required to double up roles, switching between portraying downtrodden and despised petty criminals - transported 'for their country's good' - and their educated and privileged red-coated, bewigged, military masters. So smoothly do they make these abrupt changes of character that it requires careful checking of the cast list in the programme during the interval to confirm how efficiently and expertly they swap between such diverse personalities.

The play explores the intertwining of relationships which occurs when people from diverse backgrounds find themselves confined together in what ever circumstances. Prejudices and spite rise to the surface, but so does love and respect.

Our Country's Good was first staged in 1988 soon after writer Timberlake Wertenbaker had lost her partner to a stroke. The gamut of emotions she experienced at the time is apparent in many aspects of the production from the enforced beginning of a new life to the sensation of death.

Director Max-Stafford Clark, who was at the helm when the play was premiered 24 years ago, has ensured that this latest version remains vividly moving and thought provoking. The cast is enthusiastic and dedicated, the costumes well researched and accurate, the sound effects remarkably atmospheric and everyone involved, including those responsible for the stark but effective and quickly-adaptable set, deserve enormous credit.

Long may the Out of Joint company remain in business, unlocking the wonderful experience of live theatre for as many audiences as possible.

Our Country's Good is at the Theatre Royal, Windsor from November 18-22. For details of performances and to buy tickets go here