Family Values (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

Queensland Theatre can’t go wrong opening its 2023 season with this entertaining and sometimes searing comedy-drama from the prodigious David Williamson (Emerald City, Don’s Party, The Removalists and many more). Family dynamics clash with topical politics and social issues in the tight, interval-free 90-minute play directed by Artistic Director, Lee Lewis (Prima Facie, Mouthpiece).

Family Values has had successful runs in Sydney and Canberra, and its location has been transferred to the leafy, inner western Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove for this production. There gathers the family of retired judge, Roger (Peter Kowitz – Death of a Salesman), who’s turning 70. His wife, Sue (Andrea Moor – Switzerland), and he are welcoming their three adult children, all divorced, for the celebration.

In a rather unlikely coincidence that you just have to go with, one of their daughters turns up with a refugee on the run, while the other daughter and her new fiancée just happen to work for Border Force. Lisa (Helen Cassidy) is suitably earnest as someone who volunteers for a group that help refugees. Accompanying Lisa is Saba (Sepi Burgiani, who brings a heartbreaking and quiet dignity to her role), who’s being pursued after escaping because she can’t bear the thought of being sent to a detention centre after years of hell on Nauru.

When Emily (Amy Ingram) turns up with her new fiancée, Noeline (Jodie Le Vesconte) – the latter being a conscientious border officer who tries not to think of the consequences of what she does for a living – you know the tension is going to mount as questions start to be asked about Saba.

Along for mainly comical purposes is brother, Michael (Leon Cain), a bordering-on-caricature born-again Christian from Hillsong, who justifies most of his Bible-quoting opinions because it’s what the Lord thinks. He provokes several chuckles throughout to cut the tension.

The cast work hard as the atmosphere becomes more strained and quickfire dialogue constantly cuts across other actors’ lines, creating a sense of high anxiety. Something has got to give, and it eventually does. This is where the harder hitting commentary strikes several blows as we’re faced with the horrors of Australia’s refugee policy and the cost on real human beings.

The culprits are named and shamed, and not much room is left for those who might disagree. That’s okay – Williamson is not trying to have a debate here. It’s clear what his position is, especially when you learn that part of the inspiration for Family Values was his anger at the way the Murugappan family was treated.

Set and costume designer, Renee Mulder, has created an effective set with a large central staircase in the gracious Ashgrove home of Roger and Sue. It contrasts nicely with the car crash of a family within its confines, whose often self-indulgent bickering highlights the luxury of their existence compared to the very real trauma suffered by their refugee house guest.

Family Values is playing at the Bille Brown Studio, West End, Brisbane until 25 February 2023. Bookings HERE

Vicki Englund

Other reviews you might enjoy: