At the heart of Lighten Up is a question about what it means to be Australian.
Nicholas Brown and comedian Sam McCool tell a quintessentially Australian story in Lighten Up. Photograph by AH Imagery.
John Green (Nicholas Brown) is dark-skinned Australian of Anglo-Indian descent, born to a light skinned Anglo-Indian mother who denies their heritage is anything but British. As if that weren’t confusing enough, he’s also trying to carve out an acting career in anglophile Australia. Meanwhile, his bottle blonde mother Bronwyn (Vivienne Garrett), an aspiring grand-MILF, is more interested in enlisting John’s girlfriend Janelle (Bishanyia Vincent) to sabotage any efforts at birth-control in the hope of producing a beautiful fair skinned baby. But when John falls in love with Sandy (Katie Beckett), a proud Indigenous woman, he is forced to confront the hypocrisies in how he sees himself.
Lighten Up is the brainchild of Nicolas Brown and Sam McCool, based largely on Brown’s experience of being a dark-skinned Indian-Australian, born to Anglo-Indians who insisted he was a white Aussie. In the context of multicultural Australia, this is far from an original story. The pressure on new migrants to assimilate into the white Australian mainstream leaves a deep psychological scar, and it is this scar that Lighten Up intends to heal with lightening fast sketch comedy stylings and a dizzying parade of bizarre characters. It is potentially a bit overcooked – six actors playing seventeen characters (with the help of some inventive costume changes) gets pretty confusing for the audience. In particular, the Merle Oberon character seemed superfluous. This character’s agenda got in the way of the main character’s journey, making that particular storyline quite muddy, despite a very enjoyable performance by Julie Goss. The significance of the pair of budgies is also overblown. Conversely, the character Livvy, John’s ten year old sister, seems under-cooked. She has many moments of insightful observations, and in many ways seems the more perceptive of the Green children. However, her age, immaturity, and preoccupation with the budgies holds back her character from being the voice of wisdom she is capable of being. Instead, that role is siphoned off to the Merle Oberon character, which feels too far removed from John Green to be genuinely relevant. Clocking in at two hours, Lighten Up is an enjoyable ride, but would make a really tight 90 mins if the fat were trimmed off.
Lighten Up hasn’t quite nailed the balance between comedy and it’s heavier themes. There is not enough transition time in between slapstick humour and heavy social commentary to really nail the depths which this play is capable of reaching (although being too funny in parts is not a bad criticism to receive). Performances across the board are enjoyable, particularly Bishanyia Vincent, who masters all six of her roles to perfection. Katie Beckett as one of the less experienced performers makes up for any fumbles with a genuinely likeable stage presence. Beckett and Brown lack much onstage chemistry, ironically it is Vincent and Brown who have more chemistry in the Grease dance duet. However this is a story where thankfully the themes they explore are much more important than the romance that delivers them. Undoubtedly, this productions’ greatest strength is the synergy of the cast, and the infectious passion they have for the story.
At the heart of Lighten Up is a question about what it means to be Australian and how we define Australian-ness. The approach to address this question with comedy is fitting, since the topic in this day and age is nothing short of ridiculous, and in Lighten up, the team have created an enjoyable insight into communities who remain largely voiceless in mainstream media. Although there is much room for improvement, the foundations are certainly worth improving.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
NICHOLAS BROWN & SAM MCCOOL
Director & Dramaturg Shane Anthony
Set & Costume Designer Tobhiyah Stone Feller
Lighting Designer Christopher Page
Producer Bali Padda
Stage Manager Lauren Tulloh
With Katie Beckett, Nicholas Brown, Vivienne Garrett, Julie Goss, Sam McCool, Bishanyia Vincent
Griffin Theatre Company
30 NOVEMBER - 17 DECEMBER 2016