Author Tee O’Neill has crafted a pacy, economical script that miraculously sidesteps the gaping jaws of the cultural cringe. Decades of family, football and Melbourne history are covered in succinct scenes, which are knitted together by diehard Collingwood fan Melba.
Joined at times by a Greek chorus of North Melbourne fans, Melba laments the misfortunes of her beloved Magpies and takes us on a journey from WWII’s interruption of swingtime 1940s Melbourne, through Ron Barassi Jr’s incredible playing and coaching career to the success and excess of the 1980s and beyond.
Jane Clifton is in top form as the wise and weary Melba, having the steering wheel of the show in one hand and the audience in the palm of the other. Energetically and deliberately broad, Clifton can say as much with the twinkle of an eye or the droop of a shoulder as most actors can say with a page of dialogue.
Headlining as the great man himself, Steve Bastoni is a terrific match for the presence and look of Barassi the ferocious footballer and mighty motivator. Although there is perhaps one coach monologue too many, Bastoni delivers them with the total commitment and passion that a music theatre actor might bring to a great ballad.
Amanda LaBonte brings a warmth and natural presence to the three women in Barassi’s life. Unfortunately, the tight casting means that Barassi effectively marries his mother but the effect moves on as time goes by thanks to the strong characterisations by LaBonte.
Matthew Parkinson completes the strong casting as all time football great Norm Smith, with Richard Sutherland, Glenn Maynard, Russell Robertson and Sean McGrath all providing solid support in a multitude of roles.
Director Terence O’Connell has juggled music, multimedia and memorabilia to create an engaging show in which the storytelling is crystal clear. There may be little variety in the high volume of speech but the energy certainly never flags. The second act drags a little, but the final scene achieves pathos well above the relatively lighthearted fare of the rest of the evening.
Production values are higher than expected given the initial limited run of the show. Nathan Weyers’ highly impressive football stadium set design makes excellent use of space. Costume Designer Kim Bishop covers a vast array of styles across the years, and somehow keeps track of an extraordinary array of VFL and AFL team jumpers. Georgie Pinn’s clever projections and graphic designs and Jason Bovaird’s rich, textured lighting add to the overall picture of quality.
The subject matter may not be my cup of tea, and I certainly never thought I would hear Mark Jacko Jackson’s I’m An Individual again, nor see Warwick Capper as a character in a play, but as with any Melburnian, a general knowledge of football is part of the blood, and there is no denying that Ron Barassi is an extraordinary man who continues to be held in the highest esteem. Die-hard football fans, even those who never venture to the theatre, will surely lap it up.