I’ve long admired Jonathan Biggins. He’s one of our best and brightest. His comic intuition (as Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton have aptly described it) was, in my living memory, abundantly in evidence at least as far back as Three Men & A Baby Grand, on television, with Wharf Revue partners Phil Scott and Drew Forsythe. Like his partners in crime against inanity and mindless profanity, Biggins is something of an all-rounder: actor, singer and writer. But this is, somewhat surprisingly, his first play, even if it’s probably been bubbling up to the surface for some years.

On the pretext of having been a real-life Australia Day ambassador, this Sydney Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production takes us to small town Coriole, located somewhere in the old Australia: the one in which blokes were blokes, sheilas were locked out of the main bar and sheep were nervous. Yes, it’s an old joke, but so are some of the jokes written into Biggins’ script too. And that doesn’t necessarily make for a pejorative comment, as this familiar vernacular is what Biggins uses to draw us into a marginally more serious, “good, hard look” at ourselves.

The trouble is, that proves just a little bit too ambitious and, in trying to voice his concerns and provoke ours, you may find yourself shuffling in your seat for the wrong reasons. That is, not because you’ve been ruffled or unsettled by the issues raised, but because the coterie of colourful characters’ voices suddenly alter from comedic complicity to a solemnity which just isn’t really credible. And so the sharp one-liners and strings of other jokes which pop out like sausages at a Rotary club barbie are suddenly bypassed for discomfiting didacticism.

And the views that emerge don’t seem quite consistent with Biggins’ virtually card-carrying credentials as an “inner-city, bleeding heart leftie”. Yes, he rightly and repeatedly raises the doomsday spectre of climate change, seeming frustrated with our ongoing denial and inaction. In fact, he assigns not one but two characters as vehicles for this. Also, he seems to see some intrinsic value in Australia Day, as celebrated at grassroots community level and as against its exploitation by pollies and the media as a tool of jingoism. And while, I’m sure, he’d be one of the first to stand up for multiculturalism (to use what’s become a loaded term), he seems to harbour a sneaking admiration for the “battlers” (to borrow another loaded term) and poor old bastards caught between plain speech and the insidious creep of political correctness they now find themselves drowning in; at least as they experience it.

This is an unexpected position. A compassionate, patient, understanding one (that’s more than I can manage much of the time). He’s indicating, I think, that if we’re to expect the intolerant to have, develop or show tolerance, challenging as it may be we must show tolerance to them. His initial incredulity at being selected as an Australia Day ambassador seems to have given way to a regard for the role that surprised even, or especially, him.

So his heart’s in the right place. But, for entire scenes, it seems to rule his head and creative judgment (as forgivable as it may be), resulting in the incongruous aspects of character that emerge in a few of the roles. Besides this, the whole shebang (ironically, somewhat akin to an Australia Day ceremony organised by a committee), at going on two-and-a-half hours, is over-written, not least in order that JB might mount his hobbyhorses.

But of course for the most part the play rollicks along from boom-boom to boom-boom; he’s got a million of ’em. I’ll wager most will ride this wave, paying relatively scant attention to his higher purpose. This may prove disillusioning for the writer, even if demonstrating his point. There seems to be something of the reformed smoker present: Biggins seems to have been impressed, during his tenure as an Australia Day ambassador, by the fact others (outside the Clover Moore enclave, anyway) didn’t necessarily share the ambivalence of the occasion with he and his friends. On the contrary. Not that he spares the horses when contemplating its tackier excesses; why, even in his programmatic writer’s note he confesses his pathological aversion to ‘flag tattoos, Kochie in a Southern Cross barbecue apron and Cronulla on a bad day’.

What works in the play’s favour is, for the most part, the right cast, directed by Richard Cottrell. Geoff Morell has made a mini-career, in recent years, of municipal and petty political roles and he reprises such here, as ambitious mayor, Brian, desperately seeking preselection for a federal Liberal seat. His performance is characteristically note perfect. It sings. Alongside him is David James as Brian’s pedantic (the literalism of Yes Minister’s Bernard is a borrowed running gag) deputy Robert. It’s a good fit, too. Valerie Bader, as Marie, makes a convincingly small-minded CWA stalwart. Alison Whyte is convincing as Helen, the calculating Greens councillor (and it’s interesting that Biggins should mould her character this way). Peter Kowitz surprised as the blokey Wally, playing it to the hilt, though he seems to flag as the play wore on. The only actor out of his depth was Kaeng Chan, as Chester, the quick-witted Vietnamese schoolteacher. Overacting was the issue. Too much deliberation. But the performances overall did credit to Cate and Andrew’s cunning in teaming the experienced director Richard Cottrell with neophyte playwright Biggins.

Sometimes the fact that this is JB’s first pay tells a little, however; principally along the lines describe above (humour awkwardly segueing into didacticism). It’s evident from the very beginning of act one, which opens in the Coriole Public School hall; probably brand new, courtesy Julia. An urn immediately says committee meeting. The ever-diligent Robert, deputy mayor, is distributing papers in readiness for such, when the mayor, Brian, enters:

Brian: Jesus wept!

Robert: Evening, Brian.

Brian: Cold enough for you?

Robert: Lowest July maximum for eighteen years, apparently.

Brian: So much for climate change. I thought it was supposed to get hotter.

Robert: It is. But just because it’s colder doesn’t mean it’s not getting hotter.

Brian: Makes sense.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Tim Flannery was on stage, delivering a salutary address. (Mind you, there are older and one would wish wiser playwrights who suffer similarly. One of them’s even been Australian Of The Year. Well, Senior Australian Of The Year. In Queensland.)

The lecture continues:

Robert: You have to look at the trend.

Brian: Spare me the lecture. Weather doesn’t equal climate.

But where Biggins is clever is in mediating, albeit just in the nick of time (or not quite), with relatable, nostalgic humour, if humour that will be pretty much lost on anyone much younger than a baby boomer:

Brian: Don’t you remember school milk in the playground at boiling point? Turned me off the stuff for life.

But if you’re one who believes, like Shakespeare, that theatre should be accessible to the widest possible cross-section of the community (particularly if and when it has something to say, so it has the best possible opportunity to have positive influence), Australia Day will probably meet with your approval. It’s easygoing. Amiable. Companionable. Dare I say, notwithstanding certain of the politics suggested, invested and indulged, middle of the road. And a little too long. It looks, sounds and feels, more like a television show; somewhere between the aforementioned Yes, Minister and, say, Packed To The Rafters. An impression bolstered by the design (Richard Roberts) and lighting (Niklas Pajanti), to say nothing of Josh Burns’ filmic contributions. So much so, one can’t help but wonder if this mightn’t have been conceived, even if only subconsciously, as a teleplay.

Of course, Biggins being brilliantly Biggins, when he nails a line or two, it cuts like a hot knife through butter. Or stings like lemon juice on a split lip. As when Wally whines about exorbitant Italian tapware, intimates conspiratorial criminal connections and is mocked by the deputy mayor:

Robert: Must be the Mafia.

Wally: Oh shit, yeah! They’d have a hand in it.

Robert: Yes, they’d split it up between the families. You can have prostitution; we’ll have bath and shower sets.

And if you listen carefully (most won’t, I suspect), your radar will detect incisive sociopolitical observations, like this (which, again, comes right at the beginning of the play), wherein endemic grassroots corruption is used as a metaphor and guide to the big end of town kind:

Robert: I’ve had an apology from Graham.

Brian: Again? Has he ever turned up for a meeting?

Robert: He made it to the council dinner to thank the committee for all our hard work.

Brian: I don’t know why we just can’t ditch him and get someone who’s going to pull their weight.

Robert: He’s the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Brian. He keeps the sponsors onside.

Brian: He doesn’t give us a damn cent! Come on, he charges wholesale plus $10 for the bread rolls, we’ve got to have that bloody O’Connor Bakery banner that’s the size of a bus outside the sausage sizzle and then he goes on about community spirit and the national day. Give me a break!

But I fear Biggins high hopes for self-examination might be lost in space, however. Dr Frankenstein consumed by the monster. A clever comedic space of his own making.

The details: Australia Day plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until October 27. Tickets on the STC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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