REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

David Williamson is one of Australia’s most revered, performed and awarded playwrights. For 50 years, his works have appeared on stages at home and across the world, and he’s been named one of Australia’s Living National Treasures.

But after half a century in the business, Williamson is calling it a day in 2020. His two final plays will be Family Values, which has just opened at Griffin Theatre Company’s SBW Stables Theatre, and Crunch Time, the premiere of which Ensemble Theatre will host next month.

Family Values is set on Sydney’s Upper North Shore in the home of Roger Collins (Andrew McFarlane), a retired Federal Court Judge, and his wife, Sue (Belinda Giblin), a former social worker. The family gathers to celebrate Roger’s 70th birthday and, given that his adult children have firmly held political views that run the spectrum, there is plenty of tension to go around. His son, Michael (Jamie Oxenbould), has found his home in the Hillsong Church community; his daughter, Emily (Ella Prince), is a Border Force officer and her partner, Noeline (Bishanyia Vincent), is the Commanding Officer of a Border Force ship. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Lisa (Danielle King), is a left-wing activist.

The coming together of this dysfunctional group was almost inevitably going to end in conflict, but things escalate because of Lisa’s arrival with a guest, Saba (Sabryna Walters), an Iranian asylum seeker who has escaped detention in Nauru. Despite two psychiatric assessments concluding that she is at high risk of suicide if returned to the island’s notorious detention facilities, Saba has been refused a refugee protection visa. Lisa is determined to hide her from the authorities.

During the exchanges that follow, the Collins’ living room becomes a microcosm of Australia, with views forcefully argued from each side of the debate about the country’s treatment of asylum seekers. But it’s not the only pertinent 21st century issue that comes up for discussion; conversation arises around the potential use of Australia’s national security laws to restrict freedom of speech, as well as the 2017 same-sex marriage vote.

Family Values is Williamson’s fuming response to what he perceives as hypocrisy and a lack of sympathy for others from members of his own generation. That sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated by a single line early on in the show, when Sue says to her conservative husband: “You’re kind, you’re generous, but some gremlin snap-froze your social attitudes sometime around 1959.” Over 90 minutes, and performed on a great set by Sophie Fletcher, Williamson’s living room drama asks audiences to sit up, pay attention and become more human in their attitudes.

This is a well written piece that, in addition to stirring topical political flashpoints, is very funny, and it couldn’t be in better hands than those of Griffin’s outgoing Artistic Director, Lee Lewis. The production is wholly engaging for its duration and successfully highlights our shortcomings as a community. And while Williamson’s assessment of the status quo is damning, there’s ultimately optimism in the text that we can – and will – channel our humanity to address this crisis. The solution pursued by key characters here to overcome Saba’s plight is arguably improbable, but it does reinforce the notion of the power of the individual to effect change.

Lewis has assembled a terrific ensemble to animate these characters. McFarlane is perfectly cast as the conformist patriarch, averse to deviating from black and white adherence to the rule of law. Fresh from her outstanding performance in Outhouse’s Sydney Theatre Award-winner John, Giblin is excellent as the household’s arbitrator and voice of reason. Oxenbould’s comedic skills serve him well as Michael, who views the world through a staunchly Christian lens, and Prince’s Emily believably finds her voice as the show progresses.

King ensures Lisa is the passionate human rights advocate the text requires, and Vincent excels as the domineering and decided Noeline. Finally, Walters has the necessary impact delivering Saba’s extended speech later in the piece. It’s an emotional and disturbing monologue that challenges those around her to put their comparatively trivial squabbles into perspective, and to assess her situation on a humanistic level.

Family Values is a strong start to 2020 for Griffin, further consolidating Williamson’s status as one of Australia’s very best storytellers and offering a timely reminder to all of us to be more compassionate. Recommended.

Photo credit: Brett Boardman

FAMILY VALUES – SEASON DETAILS

Where: SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St, Kings Cross
When: Playing now until 7 March 2020
Tickets: $38 – $62 (transaction fees of $4 for online bookings and $6 for phone bookings apply)
Bookings by phone on (02) 9361 3817 or online here.

OTHER VENUES AND DATES

Canberra: Canberra Theatre Centre, March 11 – 14 2020. More details here
Parramatta: Riverside Theatres Parramatta, March 18 – 21 2020. More details here
Geelong: Geelong Arts Centre, March 25 – 28 2020. More details here

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