Australia Day | Hunters Hill Theatre

The politics of small town local government committees can be hairy at the best of times but when a new generation swoops in with ideas about how to shake things up and shift the status quo, more than one veteran committee member bristles. Who knew that organising an Australia Day barbeque would lead to bribery, sabotage, and the up-rooting of a corrupt local politician?

The Australia Day committee has been meeting for years to organise the town’s celebrations with various talent displays, a cooking competition, and a classic sausage sizzle. But a new committee member, and new resident in town, named Helen (Cee Egan) has already ruffled some feathers with her new progressive ideas even before she decides to challenge long-standing traditions with the introduction of meat-free alternatives to sausages, culturally sensitive performances, and a more inclusive approach to representing modern day Australia. She butts heads repeatedly with staunch Aussie battler and deliberately provocative Wally (Alan Long) but the other committee members Maree (Renee Simon), Robert (Ross Alexander), Chester (Kirit Chaudry), and the chair Brian (Martin Maling) choose a more ambivalent stance on all issues of offence and political correctness. That is, until Helen accidentally records an unsavoury conversation between Brian and Robert regarding an upcoming vote that could effect Brian’s business and his future as a state politician. Now Helen has some ammunition to instigate real change in the town, but at what cost?

Jonathan Biggins’s satirical script is a story split between two parts; first, the planning of the Australian Day barbeque and the many spats involved and, second, the actual day in which everything goes wrong like an episode of Fawlty Towers set on a school oval. The humour was witty and character-driven which kept the production engaging as the audience grew to understand the characters better in all their complicated decisions and contradictions. Director Jasper Kyle maintained a balance between the petty mundanity of local politics while also elevating some well-rounded characterisations and pertinent conversations about politics, race, disability, and power as manifest in the real everyday interactions between people.

The set design by Kyle and Christopher Hamilton recreated a simple Scout Hall for the committee’s meetings while Joanna Yetsenga’s costume design helped flesh-out the characters as their archetypes with particular quirks. Of particular note was Maree’s penchant to bring a new craft to each meeting while her boldly patterned outfits transformed into a remarkable numbat costume later in the production. Similarly, the contrast between Wally’s working class roots and Helen’s greenie status were well-illustrated in their costuming. This attention to detail in the characterisation and costuming was astute and added greatly to an already character-focused script.

The performances were strong in how convincing each actor made their character’s position, for better and for worse. Long’s Wally was deeply unlikeable for his free use of slurs and insults but his begrudging attitude was equally recognisable, especially in the production’s resolution. Egan and Simon added great humour to the production with excellent comic timing while Egan’s complicated representation of Helen as both forcefully ethical and opportunistically manipulative was intriguing. Chester as a drop-in figure from the local primary school was a deliberately ambiguously written character and Chaudry did well to navigate participating virtually via Zoom, but the characterisation of Chester as facetious was difficult to read and felt disconnected from the rest of the cast. On the other hand, both Brian and Robert were impressively portrayed by Maling and Alexander as typical politicians, even if Robert was roped into it, with a performative pride and constant consideration of optics that was as entertaining as it was agitating. The big mix of colourful characters represented in the script were comfortably and realistically performed by the cast, which allowed for a rich and interesting examination of the production’s themes and tensions.

Change, even for the better, often comes slowly and with great compromise but, at least for the Australia Day committee of this small town, after the thrashing of a cancelled celebrity appearance, mass food poisoning, and a downpour, they’re in a position to meet each other on equal footing and listen to each other for the first time.

Australia Day ran at Club Ryde from September 9th – 25th

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