Griffin close the year with an indie comedy about identity and racism
Have you ever noticed that our soaps are full of white faces?
John (Nicholas Brown) is an aspiring actor who spends his days hosting ‘Cockney Convict Tours’ around the Rocks, but what he really wants is to be on Bondi Parade (think Home and Away, only set in the Eastern Suburbs) – and he’s finally scored an audition. He’s been sanding down his body with a pumice stone to try to ‘lighten up’ for the gig. He has no choice, he thinks: no one on Bondi Parade looks like him.
At the same time, John’s mother Bronwyn (Vivienne Garrett) is campaigning for John’s girlfriend Janelle (Bishanyia Vincent) to get pregnant, pressuring her to put holes in condoms and advising her on other ways to deceive her son. Bronwyn wants a white grandchild, and Janelle seems the perfect way to get it – if she doesn’t abstain from sex and go back to the teachings of “Chillsong.”
It’s not until John meet-cutes Sandy (Katie Beckett), who embraces her own Indigenous heritage, that he starts to really examine the internalised and casual racism he’s been subjected to his whole life. When his little sister Livvy (Julie Goss) discovers his mother’s carefully-hidden skin-bleaching cream and birth certificate, suddenly John’s skin, and everyone’s reaction to it, starts to make a little more sense.
And then there’s the ghost of Old Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon (also Goss) who thinks John could be the next Gandhi, or at least her ticket to eternal rest. There’s also Anil (Sam McCool), a self-styled Bollywood hotshot who discovers John at the beach and wants to cast him on the spot for his next film – an idea that John hates, but can’t quite articulate why.
There’s a lot going on in Lighten Up, Brown and McCool’s romantic comedy/social satire. It’s a rapid-fire joke machine, veering from daggy puns and Olivia Newton-John jokes (John’s mother is obsessed with her) to surprisingly sharp commentary on race, family, and identity. John and Sandy’s perspectives, and the points where they clash or intersect, are especially compelling. Through them, the play tells an acerbic but generous story about families of colour, and the different ways they adapt to living in a racist country.
But as a work of theatre, Lighten Up is a mess. Act One ends on a cliff-hanger, but the second act drops that narrative thread and immediately returns to smaller business. By the time we get back to the twist several scenes later, all suspense has seeped away and the inevitable confrontation between mother and son seems toothless.
Some scenes are too long, while others seem to exist in a hyper-stylised world of parody – all well and good until contrasted with Katie Beckett’s remarkably naturalistic performance; her scenes feel grounded and honest, and the world of the show around her frequently feels cheapened by its race to the next joke.
Director Shane Anthony is also the play’s dramaturg, and this overlap could explain why both the script and the production feel unbalanced and lack clarity. Transitions between reality and fantasy sequences are unclear and abrupt, and plot points can be hard to follow (perhaps another perspective from a second dramaturg, or under the helm of a different director, would have picked up these problems – they can be hard to see from the inside).
But there’s a lot of wit, promise, and perspective hidden in the bones of Lighten Up, a play that has a great social comedy in its DNA and premise. It’s muddled now, but with a clearer through-line to John’s relationship with his mother, and tighter playwriting and direction – delineated scene transitions and exposition, and a little trimming to focus on the scenes that land, rather than those that just make noise – it could really soar.