REVIEW: Barracking for the Umpire | BSSTC

Andrea Gibbs’s new play, Barracking for the Umpire, is, at last, up and running at Subiaco Arts Centre. It is a show well worth waiting for, and a stunning writing debut for Gibbs. Her love of footy is deeply, inextricably intertwined with her love of family, and that love takes centre stage in this hilarious, spirited, and tender story of a footy family from Donnybrook.

LR Ian Wilkes, Ebony McGuire, Jo Morris. Photo by Daniel J Grant

The Williams family is reuniting in Donnybrook to honour Doug (Steve Le Marquand), father and local football legend, who is receiving a lifetime achievement award at his footy club. The prodigal son Ben (Ian Wilkes), himself an AFL player, and the Williams’ daughter Mena (Ebony McGuire), a sports journalist, both return home for the event, each with their own career struggles in their baggage. Waiting for them with (mostly) open arms is their non-footy sister Charaine (Jo Morris), her ex Tom (Michael Abercromby), mum Delveen (Pippa Grandison) and of course Dad. They all tease each other mercilessly, annoy the shit out of each other, and laugh together as they reminisce and take stock of their lives.

There’s something “not quite right” about Doug, though, and it gets harder to avoid the truth of what’s happening to him. In moments alone, Doug’s mind drifts to a liminal place where his old coach (Joel Jackson) pops up rather hilariously from behind the loungeroom bar holding a coffee cup and proceeds to bark out locker room speeches. These imagined episodes function as a way for Doug to remember the past and to process the effects of CTE on his present life. Over the course of the play, he has more and more difficulty ‘coming good’ from those episodes, and his family begins to accept the reality of what Doug is going through.

Steve Le Marquand and Joel Jackson, Image by Daniel J Grant

Other truths about each family member rise to the surface as the play moves along, and we see how the family dynamics work as they grapple with hot button issues that surround Australia’s biggest ‘boys club’. They have conversations about AFL’s hypermasculine culture and its historical exclusion of LGBTQI+ and female players, its relentless ridicule of perceived weakness, and its insistence that injured players get back on their feet and keep playing. The characters test each other to the brink of rupture, but they never split. Gibbs has written a family that loves unconditionally, and director Clare Watson helps the cast come as close as they can to creating that tight family bond on stage. It probably doesn’t hurt that Delveen and Doug are played by actors who are married in real life, but the natural ease and intimacy between Grandison and Le Marquand seems to have enveloped the rest of the performers, too.

Steve Le Marquand and Pippa Grandison. Photo by Daniel J Grant

Ultimately, though, if the script is truthful, then the actors will have a much easier time giving truthful performances. Gibbs has a knack for truth and authenticity in her work (here and in her wider career); she peppers her script with naturalistic dialogue, colloquialisms that belong uniquely to this country, and plenty of fart and poo jokes. That being said, she’s not afraid to drift into more expressive, emotional territory in Doug’s ‘dream sequences’, or in some of the play’s more heart-rending moments. She doesn’t back away from vulnerability under a cover of cynicism, she moves through it with courage and honesty of language.

The main stage at Subiaco Arts Center has a unique way of drawing an audience into the family circle – it’s just the right size for feeling immersed in a show’s world and close to the performers. It can be a little tricky for designers to orient a ‘box set’ on its oddly-shaped stage, but Sara Chirichilli has made it work in her favour and created an 80s-built loungeroom that you have most definitely been in. Ben says it all when he walks in and declares, “Love what you’ve done with the place – nothing.” I’m particularly fond of the sliding door (complete with vertical blinds) that ostensibly leads to the carport, the only place you can get mobile reception on the property.

LR Steve Le Marquand, Ian Wilkes, Pippa Grandison. Photo by Daniel J Grant

Which leads me back to the crux of what’s so good about Barracking. I happened to sit behind Gibbs and her parents during the show, and that gave me a glimpse of the bits where inside family jokes were written into the script. When one of the characters asked another (who was trying to make a phone call), “Did you go to the carport?” the Gibbs family shared knowing looks and hearty chuckles. This happened throughout the show, and it drove home the special authenticity of this play: its humour and its heart come from a real place that feels tangible and familiar.

Well done to BSSTC and to Clare Watson for getting behind this new play and barracking for Gibbs. She’s kicked the winning goal.

Barracking for the Umpire runs until 23 October at Subiaco Arts Centre. For tickets and more information, visit the BSSTC website here.