5 Min Read

A Humanised Perspective: Barracking for the Umpire

Andrea Gibbs’ debut play Barracking for the Umpire is sparking the conversations we need to have about the Australian Football League.

Writing about what’s close to home, Andrea found inspiration for the work through her dad’s experience with “a lot of big knocks” to the head during his time as a player for his local club in Donnybrook. This has manifested in a nuclear family drama, loaded with comedy, that reflects the unspoken physical and mental impacts AFL has on its players and their loved ones.

The play follows retired player Doug Williams (Steve Le Marquand), the greatest footballer Donnybrook has ever seen, who is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to the game. This award has prompted a family reunion with his pro footy player son Ben (Ian Wilkes) and sports journalist daughter Mena (Ebony McGuire), returning to their small town for the awards night. Ben and Mena are unaware of the lapses of memory and other odd things that Doug’s wife Delveen (Pippa Grandison) and his eldest daughter Charaine (Jo Morris) have noticed he’s been experiencing.  

Barracking for the Umpire. Photography by Daniel J Grant.

Andrea’s fine-tuned comedy is on show from the get-go with an energetic post-game celebration between two players opening the show. Joel Jackson as the erratic and self-obsessed Eckhart leaps around the stage, reliving the glory of the game while Ian Wilkes as Ben watches on in amusement. Without revealing too much, this opening scene certainly came as surprise not only to myself but for other audience members too, one remarking “I wasn’t expecting that!” before the audience broke into a post-scene applause.

While it was quite evident entering the show that the topic of head injuries, more specifically CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), would be central to the plot, this scene was the first indication that we’d also be witnessing other topical conversations relating to the game.    

We’re soon introduced to the other characters through duo scenes before they all unite. The family dynamic is sweet to watch, there’s a playful affection between all the performers seen through sibling teasing and classic parental instructions. We also meet the endearing yet annoying Tom, played by Michael Abercromby, who is Charaine’s recent ex-partner and Doug’s biggest fan.

As the family settles back into old habits, Doug is plagued by haunting visions of his former coach, also played by Joel Jackson, who forces him to replay moments from his games- mostly tough ones. Joel is intimidating and unrelenting while Steve portrays a man who is desperately holding onto a reality that is rapidly escaping him.  

Barracking for the Umpire. Photography by Daniel J Grant.

Doug keeps his suffering to himself, while his adult children discuss and debate their own issues. These debates cover both sides of divisive topics such as the inequality between men and women’s AFL and why there are no openly gay AFL players in the men’s game. The sound of these debates on paper may make you groan but, in this context, they elicit intrigue more than frustration from the audience.

Among all these debates, the most poignant perspective comes from Charaine. Jo Morris pulls at the heart strings as Charaine recalls, as a child, seeing her dad seizure on the field after experiencing a head knock. It’s a sobering moment as we realise these incidents don’t just affect the players but their families too, immediately and into the future.

We’re further immersed into this family’s story through Sara Chirichilli’s set design, which replicates a middle-class family’s home which has stayed the same since the 1980s. The accuracy of this home is meticulous!

Barracking for the Umpire. Photography by Daniel J Grant.

Director Clare Watson makes efficient use of the Subiaco Arts Centre’s easy stage access from the seating banks, enabling interesting movement throughout the space. It’s evident Clare has an affinity with Andrea’s style of writing and humour, with quick-witted jokes landing perfectly through precise timing and delivery. Some jokes landing so well in fact, I heard them being recited by audience members after the show. Special mention to Pippa Grandison’s perplexed facial expressions which alone had people laughing. The humour certainly provided respite between the show’s more stressful moments.

As someone who is relatively disconnected from the AFL world it’s easier for me to see the game’s harsh realities compared with someone who lives and breathes it. Barracking for the Umpire demonstrates how riddled the AFL, structurally and culturally, is with issues. Through the lens of a family, Andrea allows audiences to see these controversial topics in another light. It’s a humanised perspective focused on the individual’s experience over divided politics and bureaucracy.

Barracking for the Umpire, Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company, is on now at Subiaco Arts Centre through to Sunday October 23.