The Club

The Club
By David Williamson. Heidelberg Theatre Company, Rosanna, VIC. 8-23 September 2017

David Williamson’s 1977 play is, by this, a bit of an old warhorse that is constantly revived.  And why not?  It’s funny and its subject is a sport – or what that sport means to the characters – that is an obsession for millions of Australians.  In Melbourne, the trams and trains on a Friday or Saturday night are packed with fans (‘supporters’) in their club regalia heading for the MCG or the Etiad Stadium.  ‘Who d’you follow?’ is a question to which you better have an answer.  The play is also prescient about the future of the game.  In 1977, the forces that would turn a once parochial game into a huge televised commodity were already in the mix: trading players for huge sums, the sentimental and hypocritical use of increasingly empty ‘tradition’ and the power and influence of wealthy sponsors.  All that is nascent in The Club – Williamson is, in his way, a conservative moralist and his not-so-sub subtext here is a mourning for the decay of the old traditions.  What survives and is the saving grace of the sordid, ruthless machinations depicted is the grit and skill of the players, and the thrill of the game. 

If you’ve not seen The Club on stage, you may have seen the movie, adapted by Williamson and directed by Bruce Beresford, with Graham Kennedy as hapless club president Ted.  This production, by the Heidelberg Theatre Company and directed by Gavin Williams, has a clarity to it that lays out the contending forces in reveal after reveal.  Owen Evans’ set is detailed and functional, and the characters make good use of the billiard table upstage.  As a sign of the ‘old fashioned’ nature of the play, it runs in its entirety on one set!  That’s something (and the discipline of it) we don’t see that often nowadays.

A modernising innovative touch is to change Gerry, the club administrator, to Gerri (Jennifer Mettner), a casting decision that works beautifully and believably: a woman feigning disinterest and mere pragmatism is both bold and chilling.  Ms Mettner plays her Gerri in a laid-back, unforced way that is an effective set-up for the malicious smile that creeps into the bland but brisk manner when her mask comes off. 

Andrew Rance as Danny, the player captain, actually looks like a star footballer and brings energy and force onto the stage.  Geoff, the young player for whom the club paid $80,000 in 1977 dollars, gets just the right touch of charisma combined with doped-out cynicism from Abhi Peresher.  His telling of his bizarre family troubles, as an explanation for why he’s off his game, is a highlight of the evening.  He tells these troubles to old Jock (Bob Tyers), committee member and schemer, who holds the record for the most games played.  For me, Mr Tyers is the performance of this show: a comic figure, yes, but so believable - sentimental and nasty as the sentimental usually are.  

Andy Fry as Laurie, the coach who’s yet to win a pennant, could be more forceful, more definite – after all, he’s the guy who orders twenty press-ups when a player misbehaves.  (Somehow the white polo neck jumper doesn’t help either.)  Club President and meat pie mogul, businessman Ted as played here by Darren Gregor, however, pushes his character so far, it’s almost as if he’s wandered in from some other show.  The intention is, I suppose, that the character knows perfectly well that he’s only club president because of his money and that everyone knows he’s never played a game and so he tries to be forceful.  But ‘forceful’ isn’t volume.  We should see the pathos underneath.  The contrast between, say, Mr Tyer’s subtlety and Mr Gregor’s excessive performance is marked.

As to the play itself, as a play, we might say that here Mr Williamson was still starting out.  There’s very little story (what a contrast to this year’s Credentials) and the dialogue sometimes goes around in circles, making each point two or three times.  But the laughs are still there as is the sharp delineation of how Aussie rules began to transform from a game into a business – the show business in which the players are the cast and the supporters cling to club loyalty and buy the merchandise. 

Michael Brindley

Images: top - (from left): Former  Club President, Jock (Bob Tyers), Team Captain, Danny (Andrew Rance), Team Coach Laurie (Andrew Fry) and current President, Ted (Darren Gregor); Middle - (from left): Club President Ted (Darren Gregor), Administrator (Jennifer Mettner), Coach, Laurie (Andy Fry) & Team Captain Danny's (Andrew Rance); lower - (from left): Jock (Bob Tyers), Team Captain Danny (Andrew Rance), current President, Ted (Darren Gregor), Team Coach Laurie (Andrew Fry) & Gerri (Jennifer Mettner)

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