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Review: Running with Emus at La Mama Courthouse

Review By Flora Norton

The theatre is supposed to be entertaining, an escape from the mundanity of working life, and plays that are too deeply political, or too sad, can sometimes miss that mark. Similarly, plays which try to avoid this pothole by undermining important messages with distasteful or poorly crafted jokes make for equally dissatisfying theatre. Yet, ‘Running with Emus,’ written by Merilee Moss, avoids both of these traps and despite the heavy themes of racism and prejudice, manages to be emotive, poetic and powerful while simultaneously continuously engaging and deeply witty.

Running with Emus explores the themes of ignorance, prejudice and hypocrisy in a small town reluctant to open its arms to refugees from abroad. It follows Krystal (Elizabeth Sly), an inner city ‘do-gooder’ who visits her grandmother Patricia (Julie Nihill) who lives alone in a small country town and is sceptical of her daughter’s idealistic plans for the community. Moss’ script is deeply powerful and she skilfully interweaves moments of humour and irony into a story that is, at its core, a critical and political piece of social commentary.

As the play progresses, we see that the ignorance and mistrust of refugees harboured by the residents of the town is not reflected in their love of each other, their fierce admiration of the local wildlife, and their capacity for empathy with those that surround them. Through this Moss argues that everybody is capable of generosity and compassion, regardless of race, religion or upbringing, and that one’s unwillingness to do so may stem more from lack of exposure than anything else. Through the humorous characters of Pie, Sparra and Goose, the pack of stereotypical ‘country bumpkins,’ Moss encourages the audience to sympathise with every character, inviting us to see past their immediate flaws. In the same vein however, she also pokes fun at Krystal and the idyllic way she bounces into the town, assuming she can change their minds overnight, and immediately judgemental when she finds them reluctant.

The play opens with a monologue from Patricia as she paces her house, and reminisces about the generations of her family that have grown up there, and lovingly laments the years of demands and cleaning and looking after people that she endured before the recent death of her husband. Nihill’s performance is mesmerising and her deep, resonating voice captivates the audience from her first breath. Her character is immediately relatable as she evokes the mixture of love and frustration that we all share for our grandparents and their generation.

The play is imbued with a sense of patriotic pride and through the set design and sound effects, the crew pay homage to the unique and beautiful landscape and wildlife of outback Australia. The play also touches on the colonial invasion of Australia and our collective mistreatment of aboriginal Australians, balancing this pride and awe with a deep and eternal sense of shame. The story of the rainbow serpent, told proudly and powerfully by Patricia to Raffaele, is a heart-warming example of joy and companionship that comes with sharing and accepting different cultures.

I would highly recommend this play to everybody, regardless of age. Poignant, moving, and topical, Running with Emus is a beautifully crafted piece of theatre, artfully peppered with moments of genuinely funny comic relief. Admittedly though, I don’t think Moss could have anticipated the most well-received joke of the year… “Hey Pat… have we run out of dunny paper?”

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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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