It's that one special day in late January, a day when all we young, proud and free Australians take time out of our busy schedules to celebrate... something or other. Mostly, being able to take a day off. No one seems to be really sure what Australia Day's about, or if it's worth celebrating, or what an appropriate way to celebrate it is. It's that essential confusion at the heart of our hallowed (sort of) national day that is centre stage in this latest production from Melbourne Theatre Company.
Set in the fictional country shire of Coriole, Australia Day follows the shambolic efforts of a local council committee to organise festivities for the big day. There'll be school bands and a sausage sizzle and no shortage of personality clashes or small town political skulduggery.
The mayor (Geoff Morrell) wants to use the event to boost his political ambitions. City blow-in Helen (Alison Whyte) wants to shake up local attitudes by introducing some multiculturalism, while sticks-in-the-mud Robert (David James) and Country Womens Association rep Marie (Valerie Bader) would rather the event stayed just the same as always. Asian Australian school teacher Chester (Kaeng Chan) is going flag crazy, while long-time local Wally (Peter Kowitz) uses committee meetings mostly to vent his bitterness about a world he feels hard done by.
The show is a coproduction between MTC and Sydney Theatre Company, though we're seeing it here first before it hits the Sydney stage in September. Written by satirist Jonathan Biggins – part of the team behind STC's annual political lampoon The Wharf Revue and a former columnist for the Good Weekend – it was always going to be both funny and politically astute. Biggins also has particular experience with Australia Day festivities, having himself once been toured around regional celebrations as an Australia Day Ambassador.
He writes with verve and wit and employs a full arsenal of comic devices, from sharp dialogue and political commentary, to measured use of bad taste and some effective slapstick. However, underneath its almost non-stop roll of gags, Australia Day is also an honest depiction of small town concerns. As a former country boy myself, I found it at times a painfully accurate evocation of the feeling of going back to the home town, the peculiar blend of people you love and attitudes you hate. The play neither shies from the bigotry and pettiness, nor discounts anyone as a person, however unpalatable their opinions. Underneath all the humorous malarkey, Biggins is treating with deep seated issues and raw emotions and when these surface, they are powerfully expressed.
With a detailed realist set by Richard Roberts and some highly effective tech cues, Australia Day is smoothly staged and its heavy hitting cast of stage and screen veterans work the audience well, guaranteeing constant enthusiasm from the crowd. It would be almost Un-Australian to say this any other way. Bonzer effort, MTC! Onya!
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Jonathan Biggins
Director Richard Cottrell
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Dates: 21 April – 26 May 2012
Tickets: from $56 (Under 30s just $33)
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 or mtc.com.au | 1300 182 183 or artscentremelbourne.com.au
A co-production with Sydney Theatre Company