Lightened-up laughs

Lighten Up (Queensland Theatre)

September 17

One of the limitations of engagement with a play reading is the need for imagination to fill its gaps of costumes, props and staging. From early into Queensland Theatre’s Play Club presentation of Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool’s debut play “Lighten Up”, it is evident that is especially true, given the story’s fast past and frequent scenes changes. In Queensland Theatre’s hands, however, this ultimately proves to be little barrier to audience engagement, thanks to its clever writing and on-point performances.

The story, which serves as a satire on race and racism in the Australian entertainment industry is based on the lived experience of its co-writer Nicholas Brown and realisation that sometimes in-between black and white there is a grey area. It is here where the play’s protagonist John Green (Nikhil Singh) lives. When we meet him, the struggling Anglo-Indian-Australian actor is jovially planning an Australia Day party; networking amongst the dramatic society is important as he needs to meet the right people to help with his career.

Just as he isn’t interested in his own heritage, John is apathetic in response to losing his job as a cockney convict tour guide regurgitating the European version of history around Sydney Cove. He just wants to be on Australia’s longest running soap “Bondi Parade”. His girlfriend Janelle (Tatum Mottin), however, is pressing for a formal commitment, urged on by John’s mother Bronwyn’s (Sonya Suares) want of a grandchild… cue a conflict between obligation and acting, complicated by the beautiful and smart aboriginal woman Sandy (Chenoa Deemal), who spices up John’s life in all sorts of welcomed ways, opening his eyes to even more of the complex realities of race in this country.

With so many characters to its story, some ultimately fall on the wrong side of caricature and in these instances, particularly the supporting performers embrace this with gusto. Mottin, for one, gives a vibrant performance as John’s ocker girlfriend Janelle (one of a number of her smaller roles). Straight-faced in her deliberately rough and uncultivated delivery, she is very funny with speech patterns that make her “John, listen to me,” draw on suburban tropes and caricature of the “Kath and Kim” sort.

“Words are important,” John notes at one stage of the play. And cultural identity themes of pride and political correctness are core concepts as characters are told to be proud of themselves and not let others dilute their identity. Beyond the specifics of character displacements, there is an all-encompassing and appealing message to be proud of who you are, where you are from and what is in your heart.

The script’s use of sneaky puns, euphemisms and tongue twister dialogue means that, although its themes are evident they are not overtly heavied in sacrifice of entertainment. Indeed, humour resonates in exploration of its earnest themes. And in this regard, the work doesn’t hold back. It’s comedy ‘goes there’ with controversial in-your-face phrases to force audience consideration while lightening its themes, and although the snappiness of comic exchanges is compromised by the inability for conversation dialogue to overlap on Zoom, the inclusion of physical comedy as much as possible, compensates for this.

“Lighten Up” is a play with great potential. While some supporting storylines struggle for clarity amongst its determination for comprehensive narrative depiction of colonialism culture, there is enough in its intentions for audiences to engage with and enjoy.

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