Review: Australia Day, Jonathan Biggins

Australia Day cast Alice Livingstone, Les Asmussen, Martin Portus, Peter Eyers, Lap Nguyen, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame Photo © Chris Lundie

Australia Day cast Alice Livingstone, Les Asmussen, Martin Portus, Peter Eyers, Lap Nguyen, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame
Photo © Chris Lundie

The fictional town of Coriole, a parodic portrayal of any and every small town in Australia, is the setting of Jonathan Biggins’ Australia Day, currently showing at The New Theatre, Newtown.

The production, directed by Louise Fischer, begins in the local Scout Hall, where we are introduced to our six characters or should I say caricatures. Each is a slight exaggeration of types of personalities most Australians would be familiar with and they are clearly designed to conflict. The self-interested mayor aspiring to move to a more powerful position as the liberal party candidate; the local Greens party member that suffers from the inevitable superiority complex of wanting to make a real difference while also being amongst the common people, but most likely has left the big city to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond; the Australian born, Vietnamese school teacher that seems to be tasked with representing both race and youth; the representative of the CWA that always brings the biscuits… you get the idea. 

Peter Eyers and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame Photo © Chris Lundie

Peter Eyers and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame
Photo © Chris Lundie

While not a good guest list for a cohesive dinner party, they are a predictable yet perfect combination to explode a number of timely and worthwhile issues. So, when Biggins brings these characters together and puts them in charge of planning Coriole’s Australia Day celebrations there is potential for things to get very heavy but it never eventuates.

Brushing the surface of most issues Australia Day can easily be criticised for making darker elements of our culture palatable. While not very deep, it is still very enjoyable viewing and will make you laugh with that brand of humour Biggins is known for.

The production has successes that are worth celebrating. David Marshall-Martin’s set design is fantastic; so much is achieved with so little. While relying heavily on very Australian knowledge and experience, if you have that, it really tapes into memory. The portrait of the Queen on the wall of the Scout Hall sets the scene by bringing us the memory of every hall we have been in because they all had that same portrait. And I have never before appreciated the memories ignited by the sight of an old oil heater, the kind that can only help warm you if you are within two inches of it yet gives you a nasty burn if you accidentally touch it.

Costumes too were beautiful in their simplicity and accuracy. Real attention is seen here and I particularly appreciate the price tag left on Maree’s Australian flag sun visor, clearly purchased for the occasion.    

The performances from a good cast – Les Asmussen, Peter Eyers, Alice Livingstone, Lap Nguyen, Martin Portus, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame – deserve considerable credit. All the actors delivered a lot from a script that is a bit thin.

Asmussen’s portrayal of Wally is outstanding. He brings warmth and empathy to the clichéd ‘say it how it is’, politically incorrect and proud of it role of Wally. Wally is the Australian we love to hate, make fun of, and to think we’re better than but Asmussen allows him to become more than that; he becomes understandable and human.

This is the kind of production that you can take as little or as much from as you choose. It can be an easy laugh or it can raise complicated questions. Or, for the very opportunistic/resourceful viewer, Australia Day can hold a mirror up to its audience. For surely there must be some accountability for our willingness to categorise these characters and our desirer to maintain such categories so we can keep them there safely separated from ourselves.

Australia Day plays at the New Theatre, King Street, Newtown until December 16. Book on 9519 3403 or visit Tickets: $2-$25.

Thurs – Sat 7:30pm, Sun 5pm

Final show: Sat 16 Dec 2pm

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