Australia Day

A terrific production excellently directed and performed by a great cast.
Australia Day

Image:  Alice Livingstone, Les Asmussen, Peter Robert, Martin Portus, Lap Nguyen and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame in  Australia Day. Photo via New Theatre.  

This is a terrific production, excellently directed by Louise Fischer and showcases a tremendous cast. Biggins’ play makes us pause and think – and asks us to define what is Australian? How do we define Australia Day?

Australia Day is Biggins’ first play (perhaps best known for his work on The Wharf Revue). He loves the characters as much as he makes us despise them, revealing hidden secrets beneath the surface and complicated twists as well as power, politics and corruption. Compassion is interwoven with ignorance as the play voices every cringe-worthy prejudice about Greenies, Abos, Wogs and the rest that you’d expect. There’s lots of strong language, yet by the end of the play everything gets turned on its head.

Biggin sets his play in the fictional small NSW town of Coriole, where arrangements for the annual Australia Day celebrations are underway and the organising committee are sorting out the details amidst heated arguments and personality clashes over patriotism, politics and progress.

Mateship, gender issues, disability, hypocrisy and xenophobia as well as the limitations of modern technology – all surface for heated discussion and debate. The play’s first half, set in the town’s scout hall, shows four meetings in the six months before the public holiday, and the second focuses on the chapter of disasters occurring on the day, Valid concerns about cultural sensitivity rub up against political intrigue, an out-of-tune national anthem and dubious on-site health and safety with incidents such as massive food poisoning, a VIP no- show and a storm.

The set (as designed by David Marshall-Martin) for Act 1 is a standard Scout hall, with tables and chairs, a community notice board, an old 1960s portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, and both a heater and a standing fan. One part of the set is a marvelous depiction of Eucalypt trees.The second half, the actual public holiday, becomes a blue and white striped marquee with tables and chairs, a row of cups for presentation of the prizes.

The town’s ambitious and corrupt mayor, Brian Harrigan (terrifically played by Peter Eyers), a small business owner, is seeking preselection for a federal Liberal seat behind the scenes. In Act 2 he busily has to don all the mayoral regalia and hastily change to cricket whites.

Alongside him is Martin Portus as Brian’s pedantic, fussy but empathetic deputy mayor, Robert Wilson, in a fine performance.

Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame is brilliant as the posh, beautiful, tastefully dressed frustrated and calculating Greens Councillor Helen McInnes, an interfering city-girl-turned-regional-Greens-candidate, who has moved to Coriole from Melbourne, and heavily supports issues such as climate change.

Builder Wally Stewart (Les Asmussen), is a typical bigoted blokey Aussie battler. He is inflexible, loud and a misogynist. He has served for 15 years on the Australia Day committee and is the reverse of politically correct. He has a very moving monologue about his son and hidden secrets are powerfully revealed.  

Then there’s the local Country Women’s Association’s Maree Bucknell (Alice Livingstone), who is among those who want to keep the holiday events, such as a sausage sizzle, unchanged. While rather narrow minded and provincial her sweetness shines through. Look out for the costume she wears for her turn in an interpretative dance as part of the entertainment and celebrations. 

Chester, the flamboyant quick witted schoolteacher, Australian born son of Vietnamese refugees, was delightfully played by lap Nguyen. He acts as a voice for the young, with a wild laid back sense of humour and refuses to be categorised as ‘the other’ on the basis of race or anything else.

The fine ensemble cast wittily send up archetypes on both sides of the political divide, the audience roaring with laughter at times at others listening intently.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Australia Day by Jonathan Biggins 
Director: Louise Fischer
Cast : Les Asmussen, Peter Eyers, Alice Livingstone, Lap Nguyen, Martin Portus, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame 
Set Designer: David Marshall-Martin 
Lighting Designer: Nicola Block 
Sound Designer: Mehran Mortezai 
Assistant Director: Michael Mitchell 
Production / Stage Manager: Douglas Cairns
New Theatre 14 November – 16 December 2017

Lynne Lancaster

Monday 20 November, 2017

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.