The production in 1789 of a prisoners' performance of The Recruiting Officer provides the framework upon which the Australian author hangs this rollicking, thoughtful tale of his country's earliest days as England's furthermost prison. Amongst the tents and ramshackle huts of the first settlement on Sydney Cove, young Lt. Ralph Clark (a real Royal Marine who wrote a real journal) auditions such convicts as Ketch Freeman, highwayman, and Mary Brenham, thief, for the roles in the comic drama. Ralph doesn't dislike New South Wales or his duty there, but he longs for his sweet wife Betsey back in Plymouth and determines not to allow distance to diminish his faithfulness to her. As rehearsals proceed, layered life in the penal colony unfolds: provost marshall Harry Brewer is plagued by the ghost of a young Marine private recently hanged for fighting; Sydney's governor captures, and is captivated by, a handsome young native; prisoners and privates steal and deal; odd alliances are formed and sundered; and Ralph is increasingly drawn to the quietly self-possessed Mary Brenham.
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