In the 1780s, convicts and Royal Marines were sent to Australia as part of the first penal colony there. The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that it is possible for ‘theatre to be a humanising force'.
As part of their research, Stafford-Clark and Wertenbaker went to see a play performed by convicts at Wormwood Scrubs, which proved very inspiring: "in prison conditions, theatre can be hugely heartening and influential and indeed in prison your options are so limited you can become a born-again Christian, a gym-queen constantly working out, a bird watcher or you become passionate about theatre." The convicts were, at least momentarily, civilized human beings, and they had taken their work very seriously: The convicts knew their lines absolutely because they had nothing else to do and they didn't want to waste time with pleasantries; as soon as you came into the room they started rehearsing. The two hours were very intense because the time was so valuable and we saw immediately how doing a play could become absolutely absorbing if you were incarcerated.
Most of the characters in the play are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet, though some have had their names changed. Wertenbaker was able to read the journals of First Fleet members in order to portray them accurately.