‘Australia Day’ is Jonathan Biggins’ first play. Biggins is most well-known for his roles in the STC wharf revues, where humour and satire with a love of the absurd in deconstructing the big events of the year in Australian society, politics and media permeate his work. It’s no surprise that his first play pulls from this content and understanding and aims it directly for the STC mainstream with a dash of flair. Biggins’ humour resonates throughout this work and the blue rinse audience wriggle in enjoyment as they vocally ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in agreement with many of opinions expressed. It makes Biggins’ work all that more entertaining to watch by also observing its audience.
You see, there’s a game I like to play at an STC show, especially in the 6:30pm early show. It’s called ‘Am I the Youngest Person Here?’ It’s a treat to be firmly (and I use that word figuratively) middle-aged and to be in the 10% bracket of the youngest audience members at any of their shows. Last night was no exception, although I did notice about 8 teenagers en masse in the audience (quick, call the police), and that may have thrown the stats completely out. The beauty of our more ‘mature’ subscribers is their fierce loyalty to a theatre company. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been distinctly dissatisfied with the STC (Stale Theatre Company) offerings for the last few years- they’ve been subscribing sometimes for over 40 years and they’re not going to stop now. It’s more than a trip to the theatre- it’s a routine and an excuse to meet up with friends on a regular basis and support a cultural pursuit. Young people are far more fickle. They actually want to be entertained.
This is an extremely long prelude to say that Biggins’ play may be the most fun they’ve had in the theatre for some time. These are characters we know, espousing the different, real and often flawed opinions we hear in the everyday. It certainly brought back fond memories of my grandmother’s love affair with talk-back radio and all things conservative that fed on the fear of change or progress. Biggins has crafted his play to reflect exactly that with a little contemporary division thrown in the mix. And what better environment to create that crucible of tension than to set his play in a small country town celebrating Australia Day. Pour in a few local political aspirations, token social figures from the Country Women’s Association, the local primary school, a second generation Australian, a Greens candidate, a staunch conservative, all embroiled in a bit of blackmail, a few off snags, a blocked dunny and a blacked-up white school kids’ version of an Indigenous story and you see disaster coming from a mile off.
Biggins has created all the archetypes you would expect and yes, we like and loathe their opinions and actions throughout the play but most of all we recognise them and they are not that far removed from who we are. Scary. It’s a user-friendly Australian farce.
Enter director Richard Cottrell, slightly redeeming himself after last year’s ‘Loot’ in faithfully producing Biggins’ play for the Opera House stage. He has found the fun and farce in the play and captured the voices of the characters with some pretty good comic timing. This is certainly helped in Richard Robert’s set design- freakishly real in conveying school facilities and local outdoor events. Lots of good entrances and exits to play with and helping the play find its end with a splash.
Kudos also for the casting. Geoff Morrell as mayor, Brian, treads the middle ground in an effort to avoid conflict and secure pre-selection for the local seat and we know from his ‘Grass Roots’ years that he can play this with aplomb. He does not disappoint. David James’ Robert is probably the most likeable on stage. His inoffensive ‘averageness’ has a certain appeal and he captures this with lovely honesty. Valerie Bader as CWA’s Marie is lovable in the traditional homely quality she brings to the role, although I’m surprised they didn’t make more of an effort to cover that tattoo in her costume in the second half- certainly out of place for Marie. Maybe they hoped most of the audience’s cataracts or glaucoma would blind them to this small detail. Don’t kid yourself. Your audience is sharper than you realise- they’re just very forgiving.
Peter Kowitz’s Wally, the most offensive and traditional of the characters, was probably an audience favourite- he certainly seemed to get most of the applause. Alison White’s Helen and Kaeng Chan’s Chester held their own and provided the other characters with springboards in which to kick out the gags.
Also a big wrap goes to Niklas Pajanti’s and David Franzke’s light and sound show in the second half. The incoming storm funnelled the tension of disaster we know is about to hit.
This is a fun Aussie farce and captured nicely (noicely?) to keep its audience happy. I hope Biggins keeps writing. I wonder what else he has in the tank?