Review: Lighten Up (Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Dec 2 – 17, 2016
Playwrights: Nicholas Brown, Sam McCool
Director: Shane Anthony
Cast: Katie Beckett, Nicholas Brown, Vivienne Garrett, Julie Goss, Sam McCool, Bishanyia Vincent
Image by AH Imagery

Theatre review
John thinks that he is white, but people keep telling him that he looks Indian. In his efforts to make his appearance fit his sense of self-identity, he scrubs his skin with pumice stone, and owns a collection of contact lenses in green and blue. To make things even more problematic, John is an actor, whose looks are his meal ticket, but also a constant source of judgement and frustration to be endured virtually every day. Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool’s Lighten Up is about racism, that complex and fraught topic of discussion Australians love to fight over. We never seem to be able to agree on what it means to be racist, and every individual’s unwillingness to own up to their prejudices means that we are rarely able to get to the truths of the matter. Often, the best we can do is agree to disagree, which unfortunately fixes none of our problems.

Brown and McCool’s play however, is brutally honest in its social commentary. There are no surprises in its depiction of our culture of colonialism, but what it says about ethnic minorities helping to perpetuate our own subjugation is fascinating. The issues it raises are clearly concerning, but the show is a funny one, often uproariously so. The playwrights’ acerbic wit gives Lighten Up an edginess that is as startling as it is entertaining, and even though several of its plot devices are slightly dubious, the show’s power is undeniable. Its politics may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but its refreshing approach makes for exciting theatre that will amuse any audience type.

As director and dramaturg, Shane Anthony brings excellent illumination to the play’s important nuances. His show is bright and bubbly, but always determined to make its point. In its tenacious effort to drive home its message, the staging can sometimes feel less than elegant, with awkward transitions in terms of mood and character dynamics, but its overall effect is very rewarding indeed.

The cast is wonderfully accomplished, and tremendously likeable, with writer Brown taking on the lead role and inhabiting perfectly the essence of John and his story, proving himself to be a precise and dynamic performer who communicates with surprising depth and impressive charm. Similarly compelling is supporting player Julie Goss, memorable for an alluring exuberance that fluctuates playfully, and provocatively, between sincerity and sarcasm. Bishanyia Vincent is an outrageous presence whose every entrance is greeted with sparkling laughter. Her ability to find comedy in every line is a major contribution to the show’s deceptive but pertinent congeniality.

The worst people in Lighten Up are the ones who hate themselves the most. We often explain racism to be a hatred of others, but in the play, it is clear that that compulsion arises first for the self. When we are unable to accept perceived flaws or weaknesses in ourselves, we often turn that disdain outwards, scapegoating convenient targets to manufacture a kind of psychological and emotional balance. When the world tells us that we are not enough, it is easy to use that same barometer to chastise others. Compassion is our hope to better communities, but it needs to begin with a greater internal kindness. Love can only be true, if the one who gives it knows it well.

www.griffintheatre.com.au