Barassi the Stage Show, by Tee O’Neill, Athenaeum, Until Oct 7.
AFL legend Ron Barassi comes to the stage in Grand Final week, in Tee O’Neill’s theatrical version of his life. It’s a slick and cannily directed show sure to please die-hard footy fans, and anyone with an interest in the game’s history and character.
Barassi’s shadow looms large. As a player, he helped the Demons to a swag of premierships in the 50s and went after the ball with such dogged disregard they invented a new position for him: ruck rover. And on taking off his boots, he carved a formidable reputation as a coach, at Carlton and then North Melbourne.
Behind Barassi’s relentless lust for the game lurks a missing father – a Melbourne premiership player killed in action at Tobruk. Melbourne coach (and his dad’s teammate) Norm Smith took the young Barassi under his wing. The boy never looked back.
A skilful script roves the ground, picking up anecdotes from Barassi’s colourful life and booting some long drives toward goal with the man’s notoriously ungentle coaching speeches. It’s held together by loose comic narration from a disgruntled Collingwood supporter (and amateur AFL historian), played as a drawling rough diamond by Prisoner’s Jane Clifton.
The performances hold your attention effortlessly. Chris Asimos and Steve Bastoni, as young Barassi and mature Barassi respectively, both possess a masculine charisma and physical intensity suited to the role.
Terence O’Connell’s direction doesn’t just relax the actors into performing well, he keeps the stage picture fluid and entertaining. There’s much footy-show funny business, including a rendition of Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson’s I’m An Individual. But even the quasi-balletic physical theatre, full of air-speccies and feigned glory, never seems unduly camp and the design – especially the lighting, music and video art – drenches us in AFL history and passion.
Barassi does retreat into mawkish sentimentality towards the end, and the material feels slightly overstretched. A straight 90 minutes without interval would have been better. Even so, by commercial theatre standards this is a winner: good writing, committed performances and astute direction do justice to the man and the game.