Managing Carmen by David Williamson
Black Swan State Theatre Company/Queensland Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre
At 201cm tall, David Williamson could have been an AFL ruckman. Instead, he used his 1970s heyday to establish himself as Australia's pre-eminent, and most bankable, playwright.
He's made a lot of deposits into that account in the 40 years or so since, and if those battle-scarred knees and hammies have sometimes looked like they had given way (most notably in a short-lived retirement in 2005), he's remained among the first picked by theatre companies around the country.
With his new play, Managing Carmen, Williamson returns to footy 35 years after The Club, his signature hit about shenanigans at a barely disguised Collingwood.
We're back at the Pies, but this time it's conniving managers and their precious players — rather than coaches and board members — who take centre-stage.
When the most precious of all, dual Brownlow medallist Brent Lyall (Tim Dashwood), turns out to be even more into drag than Glen Jakovich in a 90s Eagles player revue, his manager Rohan Swift (sorry Smithy, sorry Tom) is in more strife than the Adelaide match committee.
The hooker/model Clara (Anna McGahan) Swift has hired as his meal ticket's handbag is freaked out and fishing for a payout, Jessica (Claire Lovering), the consultant he’s brought in to improve Brent's presentation skills is quickly in too deep, and the scandal-sniffing journalist Max Upfield (Greg McNeill) is putting frou and frou together.
It's all rubbish, of course. As an expose of big-time sport, it's 30 years out of date; as an argument for tolerance and honesty, it's wafer-thin and unmemorable, and, in a gobsmackingly horrible first half, it reduces its actors to the grossest of caricatures.
John Batchelor's player manager looks like he's permanently and desperately in need of a pit stop, McGahan concocts an accent the likes of which has never been heard on this earth, and the sturdy McNeill is reduced to repeating the same speech, ending each time in an odd and unsettling little growl.
At half-time, I glanced at the scoreboard, and an absolute pantsing was on the cards.
But here's the thing. Like a battered old champ having a bad day, Williamson demands to be taken on his own terms, and treated with caution, if not respect.
As the second half progressed, the tide began to turn. Sure, there were a lot of easy hometown free kicks, and director Wesley Enoch banged a few long bombs into the forward 50 that paid off against the odds. Sure, Batchelor, McGahan and McNeill's characters were still ludicrous, but they started picking up a few possessions, and the team's leading players, Dashwood (who looks a bit like a young Matthew Lloyd) and best-on-ground Lovering, refused to cave in under the pressure.
It wasn't pretty, but it was effective, and a frantic, stacks-on-the-mill finish had the crowd on their feet and cheering.
One of them was the actual Best Player in the AFL, and I'm tempted to say that if The Pav himself had a good time and enjoyed this stuff, that's the end of the matter.
It isn't, of course.
Managing Carmen is still a mess, and I'm not prepared to say it got up for a win at the death, but it's going to laugh all the way to that bank of Williamson's, and I can't begrudge it, or him, that.
Managing Carmen runs until December 2.