Review: Sunshine Super Girl

Before Evonne Goolagong became a household name, she was a young girl living on Wiradjuri land, playing tennis with her siblings with a racquet made from a wooden fruit box. Sunshine Super Girl is a heartwarming celebration of Goolagong’s tennis trajectory, her story, and the path she carved for future First Nations sportspeople.

The Performing Lines production and State Theatre Company performance runs until September 17.

When tennis sensation and Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong retired in 1983, she held seven Grand Slam singles titles to her name. The impressive match record and dual Wimbledon win (almost a decade apart) cemented her legacy as a tennis sensation. But in Yorta Yorta and Gunaikurnai writer/director Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl, we meet Goolagong (Ella Ferris) as a three-year-old – wide-eyed and wonderful, fishing in Murrumbidgee River in a tan babydoll dress. The production (showing at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 17) is a captivating re-telling of Goolagong’s highs, lows and career-defining moments that unfold on a tennis court stage.

From the moment she finds her first tennis ball in the back of the family car, Ferris’ performance captures the child-like energy and curiosity of the young girl “from the bush” who falls fast into the elite world of professional tennis. When the Goolagong family move to the small wheat town of Barellan, she discovers the War Memorial tennis courts are directly behind her house. The excitement amongst Evonne and her two siblings (Kirk Page and Katina Olsen) is palpable, as the trio play choreographic renditions of rallies, tournaments and state-wide competitions to the familiar thump of a tennis ball. With the support of the wider Barellan community, Goolagong receives coaching and car rides to tournaments, borrows tennis shoes and racquets, and plays state-wide junior competitions. She’s discovered by coach Vic Edwards (Page) at a training camp to train in Sydney – marking the beginning of the tennis star’s meteoric rise. 

The ensemble takes on a dizzying array of different characters that shape Goolagong’s story. We meet lovingly fierce parents Melinda and Kenny (Jax Compton, Lincoln Elliot), coach Edwards, the besotted Roger Cawley (her now husband) and countless community members and court opponents. The sense of community cultivated on stage keeps Goolagong headstrong, determined, and afloat, culminating in Cawley’s adoration and support for his wife upon her triumphant “Super Mum” win at Wimbledon 1980.

The simple set design – a court made from projected tram lines, metal benches and two umpire chairs – helps move the story across the globe. From Barellan’s clay courts to coach Edward’s prim Sydney home, the lush lawns of Wimbledon and a colourful 70s disco, projections transform the appearance of the stage. The faultless performance, ever-changing characters and stage design results in an absorbing piece of theatre that seamlessly stretches over three decades. 

Matches against some of the most famed players (think Margret Court and Chris Evert) unfold as stylised dances, as the all-First Nations cast perform pirouettes, pas de deux and contemporary moves in place of a rally. But the addition of dance doesn’t feel overdone or out of place. It appears as a competitive battle between players, as they run, dive and jump for the ball. The choreography, devised by movement coach Katina Olsen, captures the technical skill needed to beat an opponent and elevates the narration of Sunshine Super Girl.

Goolagong’s love for tennis never falters, but as her stardom grows, the cultural politics, unwanted sexual harassment from coach Edwards and the media’s hyper-fixation on her Aboriginality often punctures the cheerful nature of the play. Discussions of the Freedom Ride, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the Apartheid unfold amongst Goolagong and her peers, as they label her an “honourary white” for skipping protests to play.

There’s an opportunity for the story to shift into a more serious tone – yet it doesn’t. Despite the adversity, sexism and racial fetishization Goolagong experiences, she never loses her drive for tennis. She says the court is her platform to fight for equal rights, as she wins tournaments for those excluded from the elitist sport. Ferris’ does a remarkable job of continuing the wide-eyed wonderment of young Goolagong throughout the 90-minute play.

Sunshine Super Girl is a loving tribute to Goolagong that captures her essence and energy for tennis, set against a historically turbulent time. It’s an engaging and educational story, delivered with heart and a drive to inspire the next generation of First Nations sportspeople. 

As we leave Goolagong on the Dunstan Playhouse stage, she reflects on her career, successes and the barriers she had to break. When she questions how a young Wiradjuri girl who learnt to play tennis with a wooden fruit box racquet became World No. 1, she answers “Why me? Why not.” 

Sunshine Super Girl is performing at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 17. Purchase tickets here.