Review: Black Cockatoo at Riverside Theatres

Review By Michelle Sutton


‘Black Cockatoo invites the audience to discover the unfiltered story of the first Aboriginal sports hero. It is a truly original and educational piece of theatre, that will leave you both mourning and rejoicing at once.’


Black Cockatoo is an Ensemble Theatre Production written by Geoffrey Atherden and directed by Wesley Enoch. It tells the story of the Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in the late 1860s. If like me, you have zero interest in cricket, fear not for this story is much more than a tale of sport. Black Cockatoo is a play that will draw you in and make you think.


From the beginning, the audience is asked to interact with the story. The museum curator, (Luke Carroll) welcomes the crowd and asks them to hold items of significance to the story. This sets up the audience’s perspective as inquisitors. You know from the get go that Black Cockatoo is not going to be a straightforward narrative of sporting triumph. Setting up the audience as historians themselves, opens the way for uninhibited questioning and learning to take place.


There are two timelines running through the play. In the present tense, a group of Aboriginal activists have broken into the Wimmera Discovery Centre and are planning to stage a protest. A protest for what, they have not yet established. The other timeline runs through the cricket teams tour to England 1868-1869. Casting a modern perspective on the tour allows the audience to grapple with the big questions this story presents. These scenes also provide dry wit and humour that is clever and self-aware.


Metal shelves line the entire back wall, filled with black boxes. The activists climb the shelves, rifling through the boxes, for anything that sheds light on the truth. What they are looking for they do not know, but they have a feeling that facts have been omitted from the current sugarcoated exhibition. The set and costume designer Richard Roberts does an excellent job, creating evocative staging that can transform from the present day museum in Victoria, to Victorian era England. The costumes are pivotal to the actors seamlessly moving between centuries and social classes.


Uncle Richard Kennedy has served as the Cultural Consultant on the piece, ensuring the culture of the Wotjaboluk men is captured and their language, Wergaia, spoken accurately in the play. We follow the journey of Jonny Mullagh, who breaks the fourth wall, and lets the audience in on his authentic thoughts, as he often tells people what they want to hear, his mantra for survival after all is to “be polite, and not too bright”. He goes from wide-eyed and hopeful about the chance to develop his cricket skills to hurt and angry at the self-serving behaviour of his manager Charlie Laurence (Colin Smith).


The show’s runtime is 90 minutes with no interval, as such it is unsurprisingly fast paced however rushes towards the end. It speeds to a conclusion that is a little bit too spelled-out. It would’ve been more powerful to allow audiences to reflect critically on the facts and make their own decision rather than wrapping the weighty questions proposed up into a neat bow.


Black Cockatoo facilitates a space for an exercise that all Australians must undertake; understanding who has authored history, and what parts they have left out. Black Cockatoo succeeds as it does not shy away from the multifaceted mess of history but rather settles on presenting two truths side by side. Yes Jonny Mullagh was an exceptional sportsman and the first Aboriginal sporting hero, and yes the cricket tour to England was exploitative of the men’s labour and culture. These truths can co-exist. It is possible to celebrate Jonny’s achievements on the pitch and off, and to also lament and be outraged by the treatment of the Aboriginal cricket team and the suffering they endured as a result. Black Cockatoo shines a light not just into what we remember, but how we remember. It is a truly original and educational piece of theatre, that will leave you both mourning and rejoicing at once.

Image Credit: Prudence Upton


All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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