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The Lucky Country

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre Co
    Photograph: Hayes Theatre Co/Phil Erbacher
  2. The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre Co
    Photograph: Hayes Theatre Co/Phil Erbacher
  3. The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre Co
    Photograph: Hayes Theatre Co/Phil Erbacher
  4. The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre Co
    Photograph: Hayes Theatre Co/Phil Erbacher
  5. The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre Co
    Photograph: Hayes Theatre Co/Phil Erbacher

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

This collaboration of diverse artists delivers bangin’ tunes to showcase an Australia that you have never seen on stage before

When you think of a “true blue” Aussie musical, what comes to mind? Is it a jukebox musical like Moulin Rouge! (2018) or Priscilla Queen of the Desert (2006)? Perhaps it’s Muriel’s Wedding (2017) or the 2014 revival of Miracle City (1996). Are these the stories that represent your Australia? They don’t represent mine.

My Australia is a land of contradictions. It’s a beautiful country, a land of sweeping plains where bushfires and floods are rampant. It’s a diverse country, but for many of my friends of colour, it can be one fraught with estrangement. It’s a stolen country, but for my parents who immigrated here in the ’80s, it’s a lucky one.

...a profoundly new Australian musical with songs that are unassuming, hilarious and arresting in their exploration of the experience of those in the margins.

Like me, there are many people who have a complicated relationship with being Australian. They don’t fit into a neatly defined box, or mould to the stereotypes that have shaped Australia’s documented history. Vidya Makan is one of them. Inspired to “up-end and re-author the grand narratives of Australian national identity from the perspective of those on the margins”, Makan with co-creator/director Sonya Suares spent three years developing The Lucky Country

Through thirteen cheerful, humorous, catchy and sometimes sombre tunes, Makan and Suares showcase Australia’s many contradictions. A Chinese-Australian man (Jeffrey Liu/Jëva) working in his family’s restaurant dreaming of moving to Byron Bay; a Thitharr Warra woman (Dyagula) who meets an Australian man on contiki in Morocco; an African-Australian girl (Milo Hartill) struggling to grow their garden; two Aussie blokes who secretly hate the footy; an aspiring Indian-Australian actress (Vidya Makan) who takes a stereotypical Indian role in a movie to act beside Hugh Jackman; the leader of Dustyesky, a real ‘genuine fake Russian choir’ (Karlis Zaid) standing in solidarity with Ukraine – these are Australia’s untold stories.

The feat of having to represent all Australians in 70 minutes is a mammoth task, and Makan and Suares have had to notably sacrifice form to do these stories justice. Perhaps inspired by her time as the original Catherine Parr in the Australian tour of Six – a pop concert musical that uses a one-song-one-story format to explore the experiences of Henry VII’s wives – Makan’s book does not follow the traditional “book musical” format. Each song plays like a chapter in Australia’s great narrative but the connection between the chapters, while thematically strong, does not utilise character development and dramatic structure to build a clear overarching narrative. 

Perhaps the notion that a musical has to have an overarching narrative is Eurocentric and the ‘meeting place’ this production has created for people in the margins demands a rejection of that ideology. If the musical was pitched as a series of excerpts of the real Australia, then it could be seen as breaking away from the traditional mould, but this production doesn’t explicitly make that choice. 

Instead, it tries to build a through-line connecting all these stories through one schoolboy, a Guugu Yimithirr boy from Thiithaarr Warra Country (Joseph Althouse). Inspired by the 2019 Young Australian of the Year, Baker Boy, he tries to re-centre First Nations people in the story of this land. The intention reflects an important acknowledgement of the tragedy buried in Australia’s national consciousness, but the execution is loose, hard to follow and call-backs to the character’s journey are infrequent. Without a more developed book or additional dialogue scenes between songs, Suares must rely heavily on projection designer Justin Harrison’s fleeting animations and Althouse’s brief, stolen glances, which are ambiguous and hard to connect to the preceding scenes. 

Despite the challenges tracking the through-line, the show is an exciting and ambitious first iteration of a profoundly new Australian musical with songs that are unassuming, hilarious and arresting in their exploration of the experience of those in the margins.  

The writing shines because it is highly specific, and this ensemble of skilled performers transitions between scenes, characters and emotional moments with ease. It's clear that many of the songs are the result of extensive collaboration with First Nations artists, different cultural practitioners and the cast, who have been able to use their own experiences to inform the work. The resulting authenticity of the storytelling is palpable. I felt seen, and it made me proud to be Australian.

Emily Collett’s set is minimal, centering a large screen which fills the back wall of the Hayes Theatre. Harrison’s animation-based projections bring to life Makan's imaginative, comedic and visually rich songwriting while providing a distinct visual language for the many cultures and contradictions being explored. Largely simplistic costumes (also by Emily Collett) and lighting by Rob Sowinski work in tandem with the projections to turn the bare stage into a football game, a movie set, the stage at Womadelaide and an imagined Miss World pageant.

Many of the songs are bangers. The musical direction by Heidi Maguire is dynamic and parodyingly upbeat, enhancing Makan’s play with genre and style while referencing many of Australia's most iconic musical artists – Baker Boy, Kylie Minogue, Paul Kelly, etc. Makan’s lyrics are conversational and wry in their humour. In ‘I Could Kill Ya’, Hartill, perfectly vivacious as Miss Australia, sings in jest about the dangers of the sunburnt country, from poisonous fauna to the “hole in her ozone layer". In ‘Hugh Jackman’, Makan is earnest as the Indian-Australian actress who is bold enough to ask why there isn't a "true blue Aussie that looks like me" on screen. The prolific Dyagula, a proud Wiradjuri/Ngunawal/Ngambri Song Woman, delivers a clear and inviting moment of healing when the story crescendos in the show’s final scenes.

This new Australian work may be the beginning of a new genre of musical storytelling. If you embrace it, you will see Australia more clearly than you have ever seen it before, and this team of talented artists will make sure you enjoy the ride. 

The Lucky Country plays at Hayes Theatre Co, Elizabeth Bay (just off Kings Cross), from May 26, 2023. Tickets are $60-$75 and you can snap yours up over here.


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