Australia Day

Australia Day
By Jonathan Biggins. Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre, Sydney Opera House September 12 to October 27, 2012.

Just like Aussies love to argue about the best way to BBQ a steak, Stage Whispers’ Sydney and Melbourne reviewers seeJonathan Biggins’s sausage sizzling comedy Australia Day very differently.

David Spicer found Australia Day much more to his taste than our Melbourne reviewer Coral Drouyn, who felt it struck the odd ‘snag’.

David's reaction on seeing it in Sydney is that, “Australia Day is a cracker of a comedy.

“The opening night audience was primed for a good time and got what they came for.

“I can see Coral’s point that the focus does stray on what it means to be Australian.

“But there are many other interesting strands to this play – the role of Local Government, attitudes to the disabled and political hypocrisy.

“But the funniest parts focus on the role of committees. Who hasn’t felt like shoving the minutes arising down the neck of a disagreeable member of a committee. Being locked in a room with someone you can’t stand is great fodder for lots of jokes.”

Here is our earlier Melbourne review by Coral Drouyn

Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne. April 26 – May 26, 2012.

Fans of Jonathan Biggins know what to expect – lots of political incorrectness, some searing original one-liners mixed with reworked old gags, and belly laughs 

galore. They weren’t let down on opening night of this new play. Fans of theatre, however, expecting a fully developed play which made them laugh, cry, and confront them with real satire forcing them to question their own opinions and values, may feel let down.

Set in the coastal town of Coriole, the first act centres on The Australia Day Shire Committee meeting to decide how to celebrate, in a more multi-cultural way, the next Australia Day. The second Act covers the celebrations themselves, as they degenerate into predictable chaos.

There’s no doubting that this is a fun piece of entertainment, a good night out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the season is a sell out. But it misses the opportunity to actually SAY something about what it means to be an Australian. The characters are clichés, stereotypes rather than archetypes, and all too often the voice is that of Biggins, not the character. A classic example is when the very decent Robert (David James) – a man who is proud of his small-town existence -  comments “It smells like midday in Mumbai”. It gets a laugh, it’s suitably politically incorrect – but I didn’t believe for one minute that particular character would say that line, and thereby lies the problem. Far too much of the dialogue is created simply for laughs, and not for any truth.

Director Richard Cottrell handles an excellent cast well, and the sets – particularly the second act Marquee – are an interesting shape to take away from the boxiness of the upstage area. But too often he’s dealing with what seems like a series of blackout sketches rather than a cohesive narrative.

Valerie Bader gives an endearing performance as the local CWA chairman Marie, a relic of an older, much kinder Australia. But when she is reduced to dressing up as an oversized numbat in the second act, in a suit which is impossible to get out of when hit by diarrhoea, she loses all credibility. Alison Whyte as Helen, a city Greenie with her own political agenda and a disabled child to manage, makes the most of the script and brings a suitable brittleness to the first act; but by Act Two the character has become so totally unlikeable that it’s hard to empathise with her. Peter Kowitz (always a favourite of mine) makes Wally, who seems to be written as a caricature, a real person and we can feel the pain of his personal tragedy even as we’re laughing at his blatant racism. Geoff Morrell, as Mayor Brian, hell bent on pre-selection for the Liberal party, gives weight to the man torn between ethics and ambition and Kaeng Chan, as the Aussie born Vietnamese/ token voice of youth, has a welcome lightness of touch which will be interesting to watch over the next few years.

But, by the end of the second act, all attempts to explore what makes us (as Australians) tick have been abandoned. The through-line of the secondary plot involving a political power struggle sits uncomfortably amidst sausages that have gone off in the heat, an all white indigenous tribute, portaloos that have backed up, and an epidemic of diarrhoea before a summer storm drenches everyone. Even moments like Brian putting on his mayoral robes have no honesty. He’s been mayor for years, worn these robes at all ceremonial occasions, and yet he comments that they must have been made for a munchkin. Why now? Why hasn’t he had new ones made? Well, obviously the truth has to be sacrificed for a laugh at all costs.

If I sound disappointed it’s because I am. After 50 years in Australia I became a citizen last month, because I love this country and felt it was about time I showed it. Biggins seems to dislike us. Satire must lampoon mores and traditions; institutions and policies; but not at the expense of losing the heart and humanity of the people caught up in all around them. I had hoped for a feast, but ultimately I found Australia Day less satisfying than a sausage sizzle. I suspect I will be in the minority.

Coral Drouyn

Images (from top): David James (Robert) and Geoff Morrell (Brian); David James (Robert) and Alison Whyte (Helen); Kaeng Chan (Chester), Alison Whyte (Helen), Geoff Morrell (Brian), David James (Robert), Valerie Bader (Marie) and Peter Kowitz (Wally) & David James (Robert). Photographer: Jeff Busby.

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