Now that David Williamson is bigger than God, with four honorary doctorates, membership of the Order of Australia and inclusion in that very select group known as Australia’s Living National Treasures, is it possible for an ordinary person to criticise his work? Dare I suggest that maybe he doesn’t always get it right, and that he is not Australia’s Shakespeare or Chekov, but a very popular playwright who has his finger firmly on the socio-cultural pulse, and is good at latching onto the zeitgeist but doesn’t always handle it very well?

Probably not, if the numbers of letters he’s sent me over the years objecting to my reviews are any indication, and if the adulation of audiences is any guide I’m dead wrong.

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An adulatory audience, seeming to be made up of Wives And Girlfriends with their male handbags, was present at the opening night of his latest fashionable target — corrupt sports managers — in a play called Managing Carmen, directed by Queensland Theatre Company artistic director Wesley Enoch. And did they love it. I haven’t heard so much screaming from an audience since I took my teenage daughters to a Skyhooks concert many years ago (at least this time nobody threw their knickers on the stage).

My first impression was that the play and production were a travesty of a bad British TV sitcom, where a manly (but never Manly) football player is discovered to be a cross-dresser — but not gay, of course. Perish the thort, as Molesworth would say. A twice-awarded AFL Brownlow medallist and captain of his team, which I think might have been Carlton, because he’s wearing their shirt in the rehearsal shots, Brent Lyall (Tim Dashwood alone of all the cast makes his role believable) is perfect in all respects, except that he hasn’t got a girlfriend.

His manager Rohan Swift (John Batchelor is uncomfortably cast here) is determined that this must be remedied, so he hires a tough-talking hooker to be Brent’s WAG until the end of the season. Why the talented Anna McGahan has to talk like a parody of Kath-and-Kim and act like trailer park trash I can’t understand, because she doesn’t do it well and it’s an insult to her previously demonstrated talent.

Of course the WAG business doesn’t work out, and the PR girl (Claire Lovering) sent to help him improve his TV endorsements, which are up there in the running for The Gruen Transfer‘s Worst Performance by a Sportsperson in a Television Ad Award, of course susses him out, because she’s been to university, and she becomes his counsellor as well as his coach and, of course (plot spoiler following, but I don’t care, because it’s obvious to Blind Frederika after 10 minutes), she falls in love with him and by the end of the play they’ve declared their love and everything turns out all right. Aw shucks!

There’s also a foul-mouthed sports journalist (Greg McNeill) who is sure there’s a crock of shit at the end of this rainbow and is determined to dig it up and smear it all over the front page  (and there you were thinking that the News of the World had closed down), and of course he does, and everyone rushes from scene to scene in an impossibly cluttered revolve set, and suddenly the sports promoter appears in drag as well, and they come out in front of the world, even though only the footy hero is the real cross-dresser, and all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds — but not in this very sloppy play.

Oh dear! It’s enough to make your brain ache, if that organ were required at any point. There are lots of words in the program notes, of course, about tolerance and all-you-need-is-love, and that the play has a serious moral basis, and that it addresses this new evil in society. But it doesn’t, except in the most superficial way, and the easy playing for cheap laughs undermines any message the play might have. So watch out, all you cross-dressing footy heroes, because if the reaction of the audience is any indication, at best you’re going to be an object of mirth, and at worst — well, God help you.

The play is a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan theatre company, and I’ll be interested to read the reviews when it transfers across the Nullabor on November 10. As far as I’m concerned, this show might be a real winner for the quantity-over-quality managerial set, but it’s a dog of a play for the rest of us.

The details: Managing Carmen is at The Playhouse, QPAC until November 4 — tickets on the venue website. The show opens at Perth’s Heath Ledger Theatre on November 10 — tickets via Ticketek.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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