A valiant attempt to grapple comically with a complex topic
By Kim Edwards
Jonathan Biggins‘ new play sets out to explore an event that has noticeably increased in patriotic popularity in recent years while remaining fraught with issues about our sense of cultural identity.
Australia Day revolves around the comedic shenanigans and personal squabbles of a small country town committee organising festivities for January 26. Amidst the minor chaos from the months leading up to the big day itself, the committee members attempt to express contrary opinions on what being Australian might mean, and what the day should or should not be celebrating…
I wanted very much to like this play. Although described as satirical, the comedy comes across more as farce: broad, obvious humour, self-aware characters cracking jokes, and the occasional slapstick moment. The opening night audience was particularly delighted with the regular topical jokes on politics and pop culture, although the laconic and understated delivery so beloved of Australian comedy was missing here in favour of a highly theatrical and rather forced style.
This performance decision was somewhat at odds with the wonderfully detailed and delightfully quotidian sets by Richard Roberts capturing so perfectly the servicable colour schemes, generic plastic furniture and mismatched detritus of a local school hall and event marquee. In this space the characters were emphatically larger than life, and this lack of naturalism became a problem when the script wanted to address more serious concerns.
A hard-working cast wrestled valiantly with this, and with some extraordinary character revelations: Geoff Morrell and Alison Whyte gave polished performances as rival politicians, Peter Kowitz endeavoured to balance ocker comic relief with offensively cheerful racist, and Valerie Bader and Kaeng Chan soon settled into their more staid and thus more loveable characters comfortably.
David James gave a strong appealing performance as hapless Robert, but at a climatic moment in the play it would have been wonderful to see this character rise above the recurring emotional outbursts and support an earlier claim ‘being ordinary’ was admirable instead of being forced into the melodrama.
Strangely, although script and characters feel like they are working very hard, and there is an earnest effort to temper the comedy with serious issues, all potentially poignant moments or ideas in Australia Day are actually stalemated. Meaningful questions or contentious debates about race, gender, identity, politics, parenting and social interaction are constantly sidetracked with comic interruptions or clunky deus-ex-machina plot developments, and the finale deliberately pours cold water on any potential answers or options arising from the issues raised.
Australia Day is pleasurably fun and enjoys the support of a dedicated cast and crew, and perhaps the relentless irresolution is meant to highlight ongoing concerns about our national identity, but in teetering between light-hearted laughs and high melodrama, there is still disappointment this evocatively-named play never quite manages to say anything important or memorable about us as Australians.