Journey of a Thousand Smiles (Melbourne Fringe) – theatre review

Many Australians are outraged by the treatment of asylum seekers who look for refuge in this country. One took her opprobrium on the road earlier this year, delivering a petition with more than 17,000 signatures to the Federal Member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent. Mr Broadbent, in a show of support, tabled the voluminous appeal for dignity and respect in the House of Representatives. The woman who was moved to act was Jessica Hackett. She walked from the State Library in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD to Canberra, a distance of 710 kilometres, in just 35 days. Battling heat and blisters upon blisters, Jess was embraced on her long journey by the Australian spirit. Now she has turned that into a theatrical production – Journey of a Thousand Smiles – which is all heart.

journey-of-a-thousand-smiles-01First things first, Jessica Hackett’s smile is infectious and lights up a room. There is nothing pretentious about her. She is “the real deal” and comes across as most engaging and friendly. Journey of a Thousand Smiles mixes humour with pathos.

Dressed in a bright blue shirt, black pants, a wide brimmed hat and walking shoes, and carrying a backpack, we are introduced to her as she knocks on the door and a member of the audience is prevailed upon to answer. She is bursting at the seams with positivity and energy. Thereafter, she introduces us to her exploits and the obstacles she faced, accompanied by music from Colin Craig and visuals of her travels between 16th January and 23rd February projected onto a sheet.

Among her funniest moments is walking through a paddock confronted by a mean looking cow and an electrified fence. There is a ridiculous episode when an officious council lackey refuses to let her pass through her municipality fearing she could endanger herself or others. Earlier she takes us on a tongue-in-cheek tour of a detention centre and all it has to offer. One of the high points in the show comes when she arrives in Wagga Wagga, dog tired, as sore as sore can be and “stinky”. To re-enact her welcome, Jess calls upon a willing audience member to play her wearied self and another to draw a warm bath.

She effortlessly conveys the selfless hospitality country folk extend to her throughout and goes on to outline five ways to make people feel welcome and, conversely, five ways to make people feel unwelcome. Ah … I almost forgot, Jess also takes a leak in the middle of nowhere and we giggle.

journey-of-a-thousand-smiles-02But it is not all beer and skittles. She also has her down times, such as when the High Court ruled in favour of the federal government’s decision to send asylum seekers back to Nauru once they had received medical treatment in Australia. And we hear the horrific backstories of a couple of asylum seekers. Through it all Jess hopes – perhaps naively – that the Australian government will soften its approach. Nevertheless, she acknowledges a recent survey showed 60 per cent of Aussies don’t want to let refugees into the country.

Directed by Jason Cavanagh, Journey of a Thousand Smiles is a real crowd-pleaser and a full house responded with alacrity the night I attended. Who better to tell the tale than the woman who took the fight to Canberra and who remains so committed to the cause? Her passion and persistence win the day when it comes to performance. As for the political campaign, it remains an uphill battle.

Journey is playing at Belleville Globe Alley in Melbourne’s CBD until 24th September.

Alex First