David Williamson’s penultimate play is a combustible cocktail of viewpoints on the Australian government’s refugee and asylum policy. Shake and stir and off it goes.
Retired judge Roger (played by Andrew McFarlane) is being thrown a 70th birthday party in his Pymble home.
Supervised by his wife Sue (Belinda Giblin), it’s meant to be a family-only affair, though that in itself is enough to guarantee acrimony.
Roger and Sue’s children are poles apart, their views seemingly irreconcilable.
Eldest daughter Lisa (Danielle King) is a left-leaning activist concerned with refugee rights.
Michael (Jamie Oxenbould) is a born-again Christian and prosperity gospel evangelist.
Emily (Ella Prince) serves aboard a Border Force patrol boat.
To this already unstable mixture, Williamson adds two catalysts. The first is Emily’s partner and patrol boat commander Nolene (Bishanyia Vincent). Second is Lisa’s surprise guest, Saba (Sabryna Walters), an Iranian asylum seeker on the run having made it to the mainland for psychiatric assessment in the wake of a suicide attempt.
What should be a celebration turns into a no-holds-barred dinner table shit-fight in which old grievances are weaponised by people desperate to hold the moral high ground. A microcosmic representation of the hardliner vs progressive stoush playing out in Australian culture and politics emerges.
Family Values is as angry a play I’ve seen from Williamson in 20-odd years. His conflict is overly diagrammatic, but there’s palpable heat in his writing this time.
Directed by Lee Lewis, the production is brisk (the play is just 90 minutes long and played straight-through) and matters come to a head entertainingly.
McFarlane and Giblin holding the centre strongly and Oxenbould wrings every last comic drop available in the role of Michael. Vincent carries the role of antagonist-prime effortlessly and Walters makes a powerful late statement through Saba’s depiction of life in a Nauruan detention camp.
The ending doesn’t entirely satisfy. The proposed solution to the problem of Saba’s presence is convoluted and strikes as unlikely to succeed were this real life. That it does here suggests the privileged have less to fear when it comes to voicing and acting on their disquiet than they imagine.