BWW REVIEW: FAMILY VALUES Sees The Woke Women Of The Collins Family Take Control In David Williamson's Latest Play
Tuesday 28th January 2020, 7:00pm, SBW Stables
FAMILY VALUES sees the woke women of the Collins family take control as power shifts from the middle class white male run world which has set up so much of the inequality and injustice of modern Australian bureaucracy. David Williamson's apparently penultimate (Ensemble are staging another new work in a few weeks) play, directed by Lee Lewis, is honest, humour filled and hard hitting, hopefully prompting people to reconsider their views on current affairs.
The 90-minute dark comedy sees the Collins family forced together for patriarch Roger's (Andrew McFarlane) 70th birthday. Unfortunately, the retired federal judge's desire for a low key, intimate event with just his wife, former social worker, Sue (Belinda Giblin) and offspring Lisa (Danielle King, Michael (Jamie Oxenbould) and Emily (Ella Prince) is derailed as politics, religion and prejudice all come into play. Roger is staunchly right-wing conservative with outdated social attitudes in contrast with his much more open-minded wife. Each of his children bring their own strong opinions to the mix along with long held traumas of childhoods where they felt neglected, ganged up on, unsupported and bullied. Eldest child Lisa is a left-wing activist who spends her days volunteering with migrants following a hefty payout from a divorce. Michael, also divorced, is a 'born again Christian' follower of Hillsong with a lifelong obsession with order and control and has what is most likely a degree of autism and Asperger's, though potentially undiagnosed in the 80's. Youngest child Emily has opted for a life on Border Force patrol boats following her divorce and has taken up with the "strident" Noeline (Bishanyia Vincent), a domineering and by-the-book patrol boat captain who, despite being a strong feminist and pro-gay rights, has no qualms about controlling the seemingly meek Emily.
The work takes place in the dining room of Roger and Sue's Upper North Shore home which designer Sophie Fletcher has presented with a tasteful simplicity of a six seater dining table, sideboard of spirits and photos, occasional chairs and an under-stairs cupboard with the associated stairs that provide an ability for vertical variety in the staging. Set in the modern day, the costuming remains simple with enough elements to ensure the audience recognize the masculine tones of a ship's captain, used to fighting in a man's world, the nerdiness of the town planner who likes to think he's more powerful than he really is, and the upper middle class retiree with pearls and crisp white blouse.
While that family combination is a recipe for fireworks already, Williamson adds Iranian refugee Saba (Sabryna Walters) to the mix to further highlight the prejudices that could otherwise have been suppressed for the sake of the party. Williamson's playwright's notes in the program indicate that FAMILY VALUES was written as a response to the Tamil family who had been living in the Queensland town of Biloela being sent to offshore detention. Whilst the name of the minister for Home affairs has been spoofed to 'Gary Duckett', it isn't hard to guess who Williamson is referring to, and with references to the MediVac laws, and raids on journalists, it is clear that whilst this particular story is fiction, it is based on current facts.
Lewis has gathered a strong cast for this gathering of passionate characters ensuring that the piece is presented with a crackling realism, easily recognizable to anyone who has a family with disparate views on politics and current affairs. Lewis ensures they capture that the characters are very much a product of the world in which they grew up and reflect the mix of modern middle-class society and how they have, or have not, adapted to the changing world. Roger has been universally liked by his children simply because as he played little role in their formative years when he would retreat to his home office to leave Sue to be the main authority figure and disciplinarian even though she too had her own career. Andrew McFarlane allows Roger to subtly grow from thinking that he still had the power in the household to realizing that Sue has, if he is really honest with himself, always ruled the family. Belinda Giblin's expression of the quick-witted Sue is delightful in her ability to prove that she is not a quiet little housewife and never has been and she exudes a delicious calculating danger as she lays down her strategy to save the situation.
Danielle King, Jamie Oxenbould and Ella Prince ensure that the three siblings are all very distinct personalities that are somewhat tied to their childhood rivalries whilst also having odd moments of affection and camaraderie to remind the audience that they are related. King, Oxenbould and Prince all ensure that their characters have a fire and desire to be heard with subtle differences in how they get their message across. King's Lisa is both-feet-in direct and physically imposing while Oxenbould's Michael is simpering and whiny and Prince's Emily at first seems feeble and unable to stand up for herself but is surprisingly strong when pushed to her limit.
As outsiders to the Collins clan, Noeline and Saba are given a different energy and style. Bishanyia Vincent ensures that Noeline is even more forthright than Lisa, to the point of bombastic obnoxiousness as she lays into the family at full pelt and full volume from the moment she arrives. She captures Noeline's sneering self-righteousness of self-belief that her opinion is the only one that matters even when she is parroting the government and policy rhetoric without fully understanding the underlying truths. Whilst at face value Noeline could be a thoroughly detestable character, Vincent gives her an underlying essence of someone so deeply damaged from constantly fighting to be accepted and acknowledged and who has therefore repressed her humanity towards others in favor of the responses that get her recognized where she feels she belongs, on the patrol boats and it is only when really pushed that her guard starts to crumble, ever so slightly. As Saba, who sits at the other side of the law to Noeline, Sabryna Walters allows the outsider to be more of an observer to the family feud, maintaining a politeness that Noeline doesn't have whilst also having enough fight to stand up for the truth when she hears the misinformation that Noeline and Roger have bought into. She retains a constant fear in her eyes along with a fire of defiance that she will not go back to Nauru without a fight.
FAMILY VALUES is a laugh out loud funny new work that has hard hitting questions at its core. It challenges the social structure that has had middle aged, middle class white men running things as the women of this family hold the bigger voices It is the wife who has lived her life in her acclaimed husband's shadow who actually has the balls and the brains to orchestrate a solution that exploits the structure to their advantage as Roger becomes a pawn in Sue's strategy. Hopefully FAMILY VALUES will have audiences reconsidering their views on the patriarchal society, cash driven religion, equality for all, and overall human rights and human dignity and the need to continuously challenge and interrogate the leaders and not blithely accept whatever agenda they wish to push.