Sunday, 24 May 2015

Theatre review: The One Day of the Year

I guess it's a big month for Australians: Last night they fulfilled their collective national ambition of competing in the Eurovision Song Contest despite the restrictions of, you know. Geography. Meanwhile the Finborough is staging Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, evidently a frequently-revived play in Australia but not seen here since 1961. I can see why Australian theatres would be so drawn to it, as it both celebrates and criticises what it means to be Australian, by looking at its annual memorial, ANZAC Day. Now a more general tribute to those who died in wars, it gets its name from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps of the First World War, who spent nine months in Turkey on the notoriously unwinnable assault on Gallipoli; the few survivors returned to Australia national heroes.

For Alf (Mark Little,) who fought in World War II but now scrapes a living as a lift operator, ANZAC Day is the one time he feels valued and important. He looks forward to it all year, and follows the church service and march by getting roaring drunk with other veterans. Since his son Hughie was a small child, he's been taking him along.

But Hughie (James William Wright) is now at University, and his growing discomfort with the way ANZAC Day is celebrated has come to a head. and he's now got objections to the very idea behind it: It seems to be less of a memorial, more of a celebration of wasted lives, and Australian national identity seems to be bound up in having been used as cannon fodder.

So The One Day of the Year is a classic clash between generations, and Wayne Harrison presents a taut production on Catherine Morgan's traverse set, which conveys the cramped living conditions. Little and Wright are fiery going up against each other, and they've got strong support: Long-suffering Dot (Fiona Press) has to act as arbiter between her husband and son, while Hughie's rich girlfriend Jan (Adele Querol) is the catalyst to his true feelings coming out. Meanwhile family friend Wacka (Paul Haley,) who fought in both World Wars having lied about his age both times, is stoically silent on the subject of Gallipoli that only he has first-hand knowledge of.

It's well-written, the drama punctuated successfully by humour, but the second act does suffer from its rhythms becoming repetitive: Alf and Hughie repeatedly come to a fragile peace before the fact that neither has changed his mind causes another huge argument. The two men can't even see those areas where they're clearly in agreement but coming at things from different perspectives, and Seymour repeats the cycle long after the point's been made. But for the most part the play's effective, and ends on a coda suggesting Hughie's choices are no less brave than the actions his father celebrates.

The One Day of the Year by Alan Seymour is booking until the 13th of June at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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