[Published in Beat, Issue #1318, May 2 2012]
Playwright Jonathan Biggins’ new comedy Australia Day explores the competing values of present-day Australia. While didactic in highlighting the political correctness befalling our national holiday, there are some genuine belly laughs to be had amidst the at-times clumsy social commentary.
Set in rural Coriole, the play focuses on the Australia Day Committee as they prepare for this year’s celebrations. Chaired by Brian (Geoff Morell), the local mayor who’s more concerned with his Liberal pre-selection than the interests of the shire, the committee members represent various national types who constitute contemporary Australia.
Helen (Alison Whyte) is a bleeding-heart Greenie insistent on wrenching Coriole out of its backward past, who butts heads with Wally (Peter Kowitz), a xenophobic bumpkin who’s more than happy with things as they are. Then there’s Marie (Valerie Bader), a small-town busybody who can’t comprehend why the committee needs a website, and Chester (Kaeng Chan), a spritely, second-generation Vietnamese schoolteacher who’s determined to counter their racism with humour. The team is held together by Brian’s best mate Robert (David James), who just wants everyone to get along.
Of course, this ragtag bunch can’t even agree on what kind of snags to throw on the barbie. Helen insists sausages represent “monoculturalism”. “Would you like us to serve satay sticks,” asks Marie coldly, “or fried rice?” Everything that can go wrong does, while tensions inevitably come to a head as each character is forced to confront the hypocrisies underlying their political beliefs.
Australia Day squeezes in every social issue it can muster (environmental and disability politics get a look in too) in its quest to examine the changing fabric of the nation. No stereotype is left unturned, but the strong cast somehow pulls it off. It is at its best when affectionately poking fun at our national specificity.
Australia Day will be showing at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until May 26. For bookings or further information, visit mtc.com.au.