It seems like perfect timing to bring Reg Cribb’s UnAustralia back to the La Mama stage after its 2010 ‘Explorations’ production.
The colourful lives of Cronulla twentysomethings are of course currently back in focus thanks to Channel Ten’s ‘The Shire’ and however defensive the Sutherland Shire’s mayoress may feel, it seems not much has changed since its multi-racial constituents were brought to public light when this play was first written in 2007, following the Cronulla race riots of 2005.
Cribb centres the play around three young, surf-loving Muslim siblings and what happens when an altercation between one of them and a macho surf-lifesaver turns into an all-out racial battle that drags each of them into its turmoil.
Director Tim Nolan has done a superb job of drawing out the ugly character stereotypes of the beach babes and bums of Cronulla. Particularly, Freya Cole and Simone Van Vugt relish their catty sunbather behaviours. Likewise, the character development employed in the relationship of burqini-wearing, lifesaver wannabe Nadia (Melissa Kahraman) and aboriginal surfie Mannie (Adam Balales) is superb. This pair exudes wonderfully genuine warmth and Nolan makes brilliant use of this to draw empathy for both their plights as the play progresses.
Unfortunately though, Nolan’s use of the stage is clunky at best. What could be simple transitional scene changes are drawn-out blackouts with ill-conceived and managed musical overlays. Further, Ken Roach’s authentic foreshore set design is under-utilised and made feel difficult instead.
One element that does work particularly well, however is the staging of a Q&A-styled current affairs program, where Nolan brings the cast into the audience to ultimately deliver the chilling chant of “I’m not a racist, but..”
There are many strong performances in this large ensemble, including Brett Whittingham in a highly comedic turn as a repugnant politician, Madeline Cassar as a delicious Naomi Robson-type current affairs journalist and Celia McCarthy as a deceitful surfie-chick.
Cribb’s play has many fun moments amongst the serious issues it addresses, and at times, it seems as if this production is trying to make a joke of those issues. Perhaps a lighter hand could leave it having a stronger impact upon its audience. Nevertheless, the points it makes regarding how easily racial tensions can escalate to vilification and even war, are messages we can all do with being reminded of.