Footy is embedded in our culture, for better or worse. Andrea Gibbs kicks a winning goal with an insightful exploration of the sport’s impact on one family, writes Claire Trolio.
Barracking for the Umpire, Black Swan State Theatre Company •
Subiaco Arts Centre, 18 October 2022 •
I love footy.
I love speckies and underdogs and 30,000 people yelling “BALL”. I love a good, old-fashioned hip and shoulder and the resounding “fair bump, play on”. I love ambling onto the oval to listen to the coach’s address at quarter time at the WAFL. I love a desperate, hurling tackle that results in a surprise dacking. I love AFLW and the little flip my heart does every time I see those women run onto the field, embodying one of the biggest steps towards gender equality that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Growing up in a footy family, Perth’s favourite storyteller Andrea Gibbs definitely gets the romance of it. In her debut play, Barracking for the Umpire, commissioned by Black Swan State Theatre Company, Gibbs navigates one family’s relationship with the game – and with one another. It’s a tender work that articulates what’s wonderful (and not so wonderful) about the sport that’s embedded in our country’s psyche.
Doug Williams (Steve Le Marquand) is a Donnybrook legend. Ahead of receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the local footy club, his three kids, Ben (Ian Wilkes), Mena (Ebony McGuire) and Charaine (Jo Morris), converge on the old family home Doug shares with wife Delveen (Pippa Grandison). Footy’s in their blood, whether it’s playing in the AFL, pursuing a career in sports journalism, tooting the horn after each goal at the local ground, or working in the club canteen.
There’s a lot to love about footy but it’s far from perfect. Most recently, the racism scandal at the Hawthorn Football Club (and there have been too many similar stories) makes me question how to reconcile my love of a game that, as an institution, can harbour such obscene behaviour.
While Barracking for the Umpire doesn’t speak to this particular issue, it does expose the damaging nature of the irrefutable boys’ club.
The door that slammed in the faces of young girls who just wanted to play their favourite sport. The invisibility of gay players in the AFL men’s league. And the language and expectation around toughness and physicality that puts players at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) resulting from football concussions. They’re important and timely discussions delivered with a hefty dose of Gibbs’ comedy.
Director Clare Watson has done a marvellous job realising this world premiere. There’s a lot that’s spoken in Barracking for the Umpire, but there’s also a lot that is left unsaid. It’s a credit to Gibbs’ punchy script, Watson’s restraint and the cast’s generosity with one another that the work is filled with love, tension and emotion.
It comes together on a brilliant set. Sara Chirichilli has recreated the lounge room from a classic 1980s, Western-Australian build. Exposed brown brick, a built-in bar, interior arches. A foldout bed on wheels, brown leather couches that could have been from my own childhood home. The detail is delicious.
Le Marquand reveals Doug’s vulnerability while retaining an authority as the family patriarch. His real-life partner Grandison is achingly familiar as the devoted wife and chipper mother, Delveen – it’s her character I find the saddest. Morris brims with drollery alongside an equally humorous Michael Abercromby as Charaine’s ex-partner Tom, while McGuire delivers her loquacious role with urgency.
As a ghostly hallucination of Doug’s former coach, Joel Jackson bounces around the stage with an explosiveness. If Barracking for the Umpire has a villain, he’s it – as an embodiment of Doug’s CTE and, more broadly, of that hyper-masculine footy culture.
But in a superb cast, Ian Wilkes as Ben is the standout for me. Despite minimal dialogue Wilkes is a massive presence on stage, carrying the weight of what his character isn’t saying into each scene.
Barracking for the Umpire draws on the familiarity of footy, home and family to invite conversations that need to be had. Don’t miss it.
Pictured top: Ian Wilkes (centre) is the standout in a superb cast. Photo: Daniel J Grant
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