Jonathan Biggins is a cast-iron genius. Of course I mainly say that because I met him a few months ago and he agreed with everything I said. But that aside, anyone who's ever caught a glimpse of the Wharf Revue will acknowledge that he is an incisive and very funny man.
Australia Day is a lovely play, and with a clever script, a nice mixed assortment of characters, and two achievable sets, amateur companies all over the country will be queueing up for the rights as soon as they hit the market. I spent interval casting it in my head from the local talent.
Australia Day is inspired by Biggins' own experiences as an Australia Day ambassador, and, I'm guessing, by every school fete or charity Open Day anywhere, ever. It's set in the typical small town of Coriole, where Brian the mayor (Geoff Morell) is also hoping for preselection as the local Liberal candidate in the next Federal election. He's also the owner of the town's hardware shop, which is tough because Council's just received a planning application from Bunnings ("That's not competition, it's napalm!"). Brian, his reliable deputy mayor Robert (David James), old-school conservative plumber Wally (Peter Kowitz), CWA stalwart Marie (who like all CWA stalwarts of that name is pronounced MAH-rie; why is that? - Valerie Bader), and the tree-changing do-gooder Green, Helen (Alison Whyte), are also Coriole's Australia Day organising committee, supplemented by the school liaison officer Chester, a second-generation Australian born of Vietnamese parents (Kaeng Chan). The performances, like the script, are absolutely pitch perfect. There are some memorable one-liners.
The first Act takes place over several months, neatly depicted by changes in the artwork in the school hall where the committee holds it meetings and some quick and discreet costume changes; these scene changes are beautifully covered by a series of changing and increasingly (though unintentionally) hilarious messages from technophobe Marie on the committee's answering machine. The beauty of this set-up is that through small snidenesses, nods of agreement, snippets of gossip, moments of weakness that could be diplomacy (or vice versa), repartee and hissy fits, Biggins draws each character for us in a few clear lines, along with their motivations. Or so we think, because Biggins may be easy, but is never cheap, and even the most obvious of stereotypes have some surprises up their sleeves: what seemed to be a pleasant comedy winds up its first Act with strong emotion and genuine tension.
The second act might be summed up as The Fete Worse Than Death. I've read pieces suggesting Australia Day is based on the Ayckbourn micro-play Gosforth's Fete, but I don't think that's fair; yes there are some similarities, but that's because all of these events are similar, from the plastic chairs to the sausage-on-a-bun cuisine to the dodgy riff from Smoke on the Water played by three schoolkids on tubas. It's the very familiarity of all of these tropes that makes it so damn funny. We've been to these events, eaten the sausages on white bread, heard the execrable brass band, watched the school play, sat on those white plastic chairs (or wandered about in the January sun trying to find one).
Of course, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and the mere fact that you can see most of it coming makes it not one whit less hilarious. Some of the tension is resolved, albeit a little readily, but as the litany of everyday catastrophes mounts, the characters are put through their paces, and not everyone comes up smelling of roses. (In fact, after a debacle with the portaloos, nothing's smelling any good at all.) And as petty politics of self-interest vie with a commitment to the greater good, we're asked: when do the ends justify the means? Do you have to be a good person to achieve good things, and how far can you bend the rules before you stop being one?
These things give the play a depth that make it more than the average farce, but truly the reason to go to see this is that it is funny and witty (not always the same thing) and hugely entertaining.
I caught this locally, at the Playhouse, and have spent so long writing it up that thought I'd missed my posting window. But in the meantime it has moved on to Sydney and is now playing at the Sydney Opera House until 27 October. So there's plenty of time to get there, and it's worth the trip.