Lighten Up, by Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool | Directed by Shane Anthony

Bali Padda & Griffin Theatre (http://www.griffintheatre.com.au) | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 17 December

It’s always heartening to see a full house for a new Australian play. Admittedly, in a space as compact as The Stables, that’s not an overwhelming number of bums on seats.

The thing I love about Griffin Theatre Company audiences is that they are so supportive of these new works. They certainly were buzzing at this premier of Lighten Up.

Initially written as a film script, Lighten Up was Nicholas Brown’s way of casting light on “the systemic racism that is in play in the entertainment industry”. Brown is a success in both the Australian industry and Indian/Bollywood films.

Comedian Sam McCool was then brought in to provide the comedy required to ‘lighten up’ the heavy themes at play. Finally, director and dramaturg Shane Anthony came on board and, with the creative team, spent two months pulling it together as a stage play.

Nicholas Brown himself plays the lead, John Green, a character that draws on his own experiences as a mixed-race actor struggling to find a place on Australian screens — screens that tend to be non-representative of our diverse multicultural society.

He’s surrounded by a cornucopia of over-the-top characters. There’s his white racist mother, who reveres the whiter-than-white Olivia Newton John and who is intent on finding him a similarly whiter-than-white wife.

There’s Janelle, his porcelain-white Westie girlfriend who, in cahoots with his scheming mother, is trying to get pregnant. Then there’s his supportive little white sister who staunchly helps him into his acting career despite the odds.

He meets a famous Bollywood director, an outrageous French director and a larger-than-life Maori dad. Oh, and his life coach is Merle Oberon’s ghost.

Then there’s the little island of sanity that is Sandy, John’s new Indigenous Australian girlfriend, played solidly and sweetly by the gorgeous Katie Beckett.

For the first 15 minutes I was thrown. The cast played their characters too big and too frenetic, like over-zealous actors in an amateur theatre production after they’d had way too much caffeine to offset eight hours at their day jobs. Lines were babbled too fast to be coherent, focus was scattered, blocking seemed random and characters were too large for such a small space.

But then the actors seemed to find their groove. Their cog teeth started to mesh. They were still playing it big and for laughs, but they got their focus and took us along with them for the ride.

And what a ride. This play tackles it all.

We’re faced with issues of racism, prejudice, identity, career ambitions, life, the after-life and destiny. To the playwrights’ and actors’ credit, these issues are handled in a way that is deft and light-hearted but none-the-less weighty.

Indigenous Australians pretend to be Indian to get a job. Aussies of Indian descent pretend to be Indigenous to get a job. Mixed race Aussies lighten their skin to fit in and be ‘accepted’. These underlying deceits of colour are the issues that stay with you after the laughter has faded.

Most of the talented actors tackle more than one role and each character they create is absolutely different and fully formed. Co-writer Sam McCool takes on multiple characters, as do Julie Goss and Bishanyia Vincent. Goss and Vincent, particularly, are adept chameleons whose transformations are praiseworthy.

Special mention must be made of Goss’s glorious ghost of Merle Oberon. I look forward to seeing more of her work.

PUN ALERT! Warning! Your pun-and-cheap-one-liner receptors will be in overdrive by the end of the show. Initially amusing, but eventually groanworthy, you’ll be assaulted with such doozies as:

“Look at me. In my turd eye.”

“I’m between a rock and a blackface.”

“Where are my contacts? Don’t make a spectacle.”

“I heard you fell off a cliff last year? Good to see you bounce back.”

But overall, appalling groan-worthy puns aside? Definitely a thumbs up.