Family Values (Queensland Theatre)
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
January 28 – February 25
Forget never working with children or animals, as the old show business adage goes; the unpredictability of balloons, can be potentially equally treacherous, we realise as Peter Kowitz’s Roger prepares for a forthcoming party. In David Williamson’s 2020 play “Family Values”, the retired judge is turning 70 and all he wants for his birthday is some no-fuss quality family time. As his now-adult children arrive to share in celebration at the spacious privileged Ascot home (set design by Renee Mulder) of Roger and wife Sue (Andrea Moor), sometimes with guests of their own, it is pretty quickly clear that things are not going to go smoothly.
Lisa (a passionate Helen Cassidy) is the first to cyclone in with a mission to save detention centre escapee Saba (Sepi Burgiani) who is now a fugitive from Border Protection following her medevac from Nauru, demanding the keys to the family holiday house to allow her go into hiding. The unknowing divorced Michael (deliciously portrayed by Leon Cain), meanwhile, is preaching of the born-again virtues of following God’s Hillsong plan. And youngest daughter Emily (Amy Ingram) has found new love with Noeline (Jodie Le Vesconte), a Border Force boat commander, on which Emily herself serves. Cleary, this is a family of distinct characters and points of views aka all the ingredients for a classic Williamson work where the dramatic tension is driven by oppositional world views.
It begins with bickering as Roger’s children fall back into the mocking dynamics from their youth, however, as festering family grievances are aired things escalate. And then there is question of what to do about the Saba situation, with the stakes obviously heightened by the differing ideological positions of the siblings. The play’s ensemble of characters is accurately portrayed in each instance, albeit more in detail than depth. Of particular note, Jodie Le Vesconte leans into the role of overbearing, controlling Noeline, while still allowing us to see some soft moments beyond her bluntness. And while, in her Queensland Theatre debut Sepi Burgiani gives us comparatively much quieter moments, her impassionate delivery ensures that Saba’s moving words are accepted with compassion by the audience.
In the capable hands of Kowitz and Moor, there is an immediate rhythm to the husband and wife banter between the conservative Roger and more progressive Sue before arrival of the others. The is an easy repartee between the children also as long-held resentments over Lego and alike sit alongside bigger philosophical issues, with each character’s perception ringing true to their respective realities. As conversations become more heated, they authentically overlap each other and jigsaw together with impressive precision, and the reactions of other characters are such that there is always somewhere to look.
Renee Mulder’s costume design tells us much about the diverse characters and parts they play in the social dynamic, also working well with the words of Australia’s most commercially successful playwright (of more than 50 works) to bring the play’s exploration of divisive social issues to life. Similarly, Benjamin Brockman (lighting) and Tony Brumpton’s (sound) design, creates a naturalistic canvas upon which Williamson’s trademark examination of what causes conflict can be built.
Thematically, “Family Values” covers a lot (so not all in great depth) in its inclusion of plot lines around asylum seekers (inspired by the family of Tamil asylum seekers from Biloela and research into the situation on Nauru), the growing influence of evangelism, the impact of the Murdoch press, Islamaphobia and same-sex marriage. And in subscription to Williamson’s belief that humans are anything but perfect, everyone is given equal voice and an opportunity to have us at least appreciate, if not understand their perspective. From within the seriousness of its themes and the essential angriness of the work, however, there are also lots of audience-pleasing one-liner type laughs as lens is put back on ourselves on journey to the somewhat fantastical conclusion.
“Family Values” is typical Williamson, easy to watch and enjoy in its domestic squabble shatter of society’s middle class veneer. Director Lee Lewis (who presented the work’s premiere as Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company in 2020) incisively takes its audience on a well-paced 90 minutes (without internal) to a satisfying conclusion, and while it might be akin to watching your worst family Christmas lunch play out in front of you, at least there’s an abundance of talent to keep things entertaining…. and, of course, the balloons.
Photos c/o – Brett Boardman