I must be one of the last people in the country never to have seen this classic play on stage. My excuse for missing the original production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's hit play at the Royal Court in the late 1980s was my transportation abroad to a five-year sentence in a particularly harsh penal colony. No, not Sydney or Botany Bay, but Brezhnev-era Moscow.
Max Stafford-Clark, who directed it first time around, has revived the play some 25 years on and it comes up fresh as a daisy. My delight at seeing it was doubled by remembering Josie Rourke's luminous and moving production of The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar in 2012. As the programme at the new St James Theatre reminds us, the original brainwave of basing a play on Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmaker was Stafford-Clark's. Wertenbaker wrote the play after the Royal Court actors developed his concept in workshops.
The play that resulted is a terrific piece of work that really has stood the test of time, showing the struggle between the emancipating power of theatre and the relentless violence and brutality of the colonial setting. The deported convicts discover a common humanity as they rehearse and perform George Farquhar's bitter comedy about men in red coats and their love life, thousands of miles away from home.
It's a gripping production by a well-balanced ensemble cast, my only reservation being that the erotic attraction between Lieutenant Ralph Clark, the director, and his leading lady Mary Brenham, seems somewhat underplayed.
The St James Theatre is an unsubsidised 312-seat auditorium, and the ticket prices are accordingly steepish; I hesitated a bit before spending £35 a ticket to see this, but I can confidently say it's worth every penny. At last night's preview it was good to see in the audience not only the author but one of the stars of the original production, Ron Cook.