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The Boat People Review (Bondi Pavilion Theatre)


Writer and director Benedict Hardie has focussed on the phrase “and the circumstances in which they come from” in John Howard’s infamous 2001 election campaign policy launch speech in this new Hayloft production. It’s a phrase that outraged many with its devious exploitation and invigoration of diehard xenophobic instincts.

Perversely Hardie has taken this comment as a starting point for a comedy. In his program notes Hardie writes: “As we near the end of rehearsals, I vacillate between judging this play as very funny, timidly ambiguous, delightfully original and flagrantly offensive’’. Perhaps this explains the work itself, inasmuch as it can’t really be explained. He has high hopes if tempted if he judges the play as very funny — virtually all attempts at humour are cringeworthy and embarrassing. Ambiguous? I’ll say. But not timidly. Original? Sure. But not delightfully. Flagrantly offensive. Above all, yes. And I’m buggered if I know why but Hardie seems hellbent on mocking the very people I would’ve thought he’d be anxious to defend. I just don’t get it.

At the centre of the action is Sarah (comedian, Susie Youssef) a former asylum-seeker made very good in the hospitality business. She and husband Karl (William Erimya) occupy a waterfront mansion cleverly evoked with large, plate-glass window-frames by set designer Michael Hankin behind which is a long, unidentified object covered in a tarpaulin. It’s removed when the actors enter. It looks like a boat but it’s one of those ridiculously oversized lounges,designed not so much for comfort as loudly proclaiming status.

Sarah rules the roost; Karl is a cuckold and lackey. This becomes more apparent with the arrival of Melanie (Emily Rose Brennan), an investigative journalist looking to do a feature on Sarah’s meteoric rise. For a hard-nosed journo she’s awfully compliant and this is but one of the unbelievable anomalies of the collaborative script. Shane (Luke Joseph Ryan), Sarah’s pumped-up personal trainer is drawn like a cartoon. It’s a good advertisement for Ryan’s abilities as a comic-actor, but it’s too much. Shane isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, has no awareness of, let alone sympathy for, refugees (all he seems to know is that the detention centre adversely affects property prices) and yet, we’re asked to believe he’s having an affair with Sarah, a highly-intelligent self-made woman. Worse, we’re s’posed to accept that Karl’s discover of the pair in flagrante delicto is something he would wear without comment. While all of this is going on, one finds oneself wondering, ‘what has all this got to do with the issue?’

The question is compounded when Melanie intimates Sarah might’ve concocted or embellished her backstory for mercenary purposes, which sees her ejected from the household. But when the action then jumps to Sarah interviewing prospective campaign managers for her tilt at politics and Melanie bobs up for appointment, credibility is stretched to breaking-point. It finally snaps, on election night, with Sarah declaring a win, as PM.

Ryan is goofy as the wide-eyed half-wit Shane, a man with the mental age of a ten-year-old. Brennan’s reporter is more Today Tonight than Dateline. Youssef is reasonably convincing as the savvy matriarch, but the ridiculousness of the script fails her. Like Ryan, Erimya is entertaining, but what looked to me like a suite affectations shamelessly borrowed from Borat did nothing to sharpen any overarching satirical effect the script might’ve been going for. To be honest, my final reaction has to be, ‘what were they thinking?!’

The Boat People is the Bondi Pavilion until June 21


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