AUSTRALIA DAY playing at the New Theatre is a lot of fun. That could be it. That could be all I need to write. “Go and see it. It’s a good comedy!”
Ah but …. I love an “Ah but” moment in the theatre. Jonathan Biggins doesn’t write in one dimension, he’s not a single noun kind of scribbler. Few national treasures are and AUSTRALIA DAY is a whole mess of naming words. All of which add up theatrical storytelling of the finest, most entertaining, kind.
We meet the Australia Day Committee of the small fictional town of Coriole, including a mayor with aspirations to be on the ticket for the House of Reps. Cushy job in Canberra would be nice and Bryan Harrigan is a man with an eye for the main chance. As is Helen. She’s a member of The Green Party and pretty green. Robert is the chair and often umpire. Maree is the CWA rep and Wally is a leftover from the days when men ruled empires and could say and do as they liked. At their first meeting for next year’s events, there are concerns in committee about how the changing population of Coriole is affecting the traditional way of celebrating a national day. Enter Chester.
Chester is the school rep by default on the committee. He’s a teacher and from an Asian background. That means Chinese to Maree and Wally, it’s a tough room! Lap Nguyen gives us such a fun character here. Self-deprecating, amused beyond belief at the rest of this committee, not above baiting their prejudices and guilelessly positive. Chester is beautifully written of course.
As is the most difficult character to pull off. That’s Wally; a definite wally who is a bigoted, racist antagonistic. He is the Archie Bunker or Alf Garnett character who throws a light on the past, its injustices and prejudices. Les Asmussen is truly terrific here, in a cast of wonderful performances, he manages to be offensively accurate in an anachronistic mirrored way that reflects what actually went on. Endangered species can be dangerous when riled.
Wally’s behaviour and speech runs an audience through a gambit from horrified gasps, sad head shakes and on to laugh out loud disbelief. What mitigates the offensiveness and makes the comedy is that he is never unchallenged. Sometimes by the silence of the others on stage but often by the compass corrections of Helen.
Amelia Robertson-Cunninghame has a sturdiness about Helen. She is vulnerable, standing up for herself and others doesn’t come easy. There’s a drive in her to help, to do, to change things despite a reserve and inner sadness. She sees politics as the way to be a better person and stand up for … everything really. Her performance is balanced and she avoids stridency even in extremis. Ambition can be a two-edged sword though and it tucks her into a metaphorical bed with other ambitious politicians.
Like Byran (Peter Eyers). It’s a really commanding performance from Eyers. We know this guy. His bearing and his insecurities masked by hail fellow well met effusiveness. Big fish small pond. Power, economic realities, over-responsivity to threats or possibilities for climbing advancement. And, of course, mateship.
This rears its ugly head when economic realities impact and he casually calls in a lifetime of mutual back scratching from Robert. The conversations around small town businesses and family owned, long term enterprises failing or threatened are so well elucidated in this production. It just rings so true. In a skilfully moderated performance from Martin Portus, Robert is the peace maker. He’s engagingly dry and wry. But there is a big heart there.
The final member of the cast is Alice Livingstone as Maree. She is the volunteer’s volunteer. This is such an understated performance from her. Assisted by this terrific script, she avoids all the clichés of CWA types yet personifies that undeniable bedrock of women who do most of the work and still manage to bring the scones. Her sensible shoe attitude gives an empathy and trustworthiness that is vital to the improvement in character of Wally and Helen.
The production is well conceived by director Louise Fischer. The first act set is pure dib dib dob dob down to the exquisite detail of a red silk ribbon around the frame of the queen’s picture and the dirty walls. Second act is a lovely set morph and worth staying in your seat over interval to watch. The lighting works well and the costuming sets the scene nicely. No jingoistic ditty is unplayed on the soundtrack and the urge to bop along is infectious.
It’s not all big picture design either. Subtleties abound if you have time between the nimble scripting to think about it. There’s whiteboard planning for those who remember; there is ball rub residue on Bryan’s cricket creams, there are crows not kookas in the audio,
The jokes in AUSTRALIA DAY are frequent; lots and lots of laughs here. There is an hilarious sequence with telecommunication devices that got spontaneous applause. But as with all great storytelling the witticisms take a back seat to story. It is the storytelling, the clever plotting, that sustains the production through 2 hours, the tensions are developed, situations require resolution and points of view are challenged.
I’m out of nouns and, if honest, adjectives to describe a thoroughly enjoyable production. AUSTRALIA DAY is playing at the New Theatre Newtown until 16th December.
For more information about AUSTRALIA DAY and New Theatre visit https://newtheatre.org.au/