As a principal member of Sydney Theatre Company’s resident Wharf Revue team, Jonathan Biggins has been pelting his satirical paintball pellets at Australian politics and society for some time. It’s tempting to think that his bowing out of this year’s Revue and the opening of his debut full-length play marks his transition to heavy artillery. Australia Day is not exactly that. But it does see him employing a much wider variety of paintball pellet colours and textures.
The play transports us to a public school canteen in quaint Coriole – population 11,007, we observe in a brilliant introductory anti-tourism ad – where six diverse characters are cementing plans for the township’s national holiday celebrations. Mayor and hardware store owner Brian (Geoff Morrell) heads the committee, Robert (David James, born to play these pedantic bureaucratic types) takes minutes, Australian-born Vietnamese (ABV) school teacher Chester (Kaeng Chan) baits – or perhaps that should be 'trolls' – the clueless Country Womens Association rep Marie (Valerie Bader), while Greens councillor and Melburnian blow-in Helen (Alison Whyte) effortlessly infuriates red-faced builder Wally (the red-faced Peter Kowitz).
Much like Coriole’s community brass band, the six are bound to be hilariously, abysmally out of tune with each other. Unlike Coriole’s community brass band, whose repertoire extends predictably from the national anthem to Deep Purple, the conversational setlist is wide-ranging, poking and prodding at everything from indigenous relations and asylum seekers to climate change and carbon tax. Biggins's characters give a fortune's worth of their two cents on all these topics and more.
Having already completed their innings in Melbourne, this ensemble of actors, directed by Richard Cottrell, exude supreme confidence with the material and hit every line with the gratifying cracking wallop of a cricket bat against ball. The production as a whole might benefit from the toning down of too-signposted gags – Chan in particular seems to have been encouraged to wear his lines in a style as garish as his Australia flag shirt and matching sunnies. But, despite its occasional tendency to be more facetious than funny, Australia Day moves along with rollicking farce-like momentum.
And, as one of Biggins’s characters sighingly chides another, “Not everything has to be a joke.” An hour into the amusing sport of traded barbs and one-liners, surprising character depth and moral complexity begins to rear its head. Some of these juicy complexities are taken off the barbecue before they're done, but it's hard not to be won over by the cartoonish spirit of the play and production. It won’t spoil anything to say that the play ends with the equivalent of a pie in the face.
Australia Day will serve as an excellent memento of the state of the nation as it was in 2012, a bounteous grab-bag of our national conversations at this particular point in time. Much like the day that gives the play its title, it too is a national celebration – a knowing, conflicted, occasionally ironic celebration, but a celebration all the same. Biggins' play itself deserves to be celebrated: another succulent shrimp on the barbie of Aussie playwriting.