Review by Emily Smith
In a slightly misleading twist, Barracking for the Umpire is not about umpires at all, but does attempt to impose a little of the umpire’s impartiality on the footy culture that is the bedrock of so many Aussie families.
One of these families is the Williams, who live, breathe, play, write, and exist for the game. Retired player Doug’s three grown-up children are returning to their Donnybrook home to help him celebrate receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from his old club. His wife Delveen (Pippa Grandison) loves him only slightly more than she does the game of AFL itself, and is his most passionate supporter in all things. Their son Ben (Ian Wilkes) is set to be a star on the professional AFL scene just like his dad, and is navigating what that level of celebrity means for his personal life. His little sister Mena (Ebony McGuire) works hard to keep herself out of Ben’s shadow, and as a sports journalist is a critical enough thinker to question the boys club mentality of footy, while still harbouring a deep passion for the game. Their eldest sibling Charaine is the only one of the family not infatuated with the sport, her disenchantment stemming from years of seeing her dad knocked down hard during games, and living close enough to home to see the lasting effects on his health. Steve Le Marquand as Doug is the lovable foundation of their lives, but his worsening brain injuries are set to upend the Williams’ happiness.
Dialogue is so important in a show about your everyday, recognisable family, and Andrea Gibbs has kicked it out the park with her not-so-witty-repartee between the siblings, and Delveen’s affectionate nagging of her kids to use the coasters on her coffee table. I can see my own family reflected back at me in the Williams’ teasing of each other that is playful yet borderline offensive, in the way only your closest family members can get away with.
The relationship between Delveen and Doug is particularly heart-warming. I think my expectations of older couples have been harmed by the sitcom stereotype of overworked wife and underappreciative husband, so to see them still so in love, showing their affection and talking openly about their physical attraction to each other - even acknowledging their aging bodies in doing so - is refreshing and inspiring. Of course, this connection makes Doug’s decline in health all the more heart-breaking. Delveen's pleas that Doug remember her, that he cling onto memories of her rather than of his footy career to find stability, are heart-wrenching, especially for those of us who have lost a family member to memory-affecting conditions, and Pippa Grandison gives a phenomenal performance.
Barracking for the Umpire is a love-letter to AFL as well as a frank exploration of the toxic elements of footy culture. Playwright Andrea Gibbs’ admiration for the game comes through in the female characters who never got a chance to play professionally, especially in Delveen’s association between her marriage to Doug and her childhood love of the game. But in her blind devotion to her footy star husband she refuses to see the damage done to his health and encourages the expectation to “get up even when you can’t” that has pushed so many players to play through a serious injury. Including Gibbs’ own father, who played when “the safety protocols around concussions […] were virtually non-existent. Come off for a bit. Can you walk? Yep. Well, get back out there. There are things that he can’t remember about many of the games he played.” One of the show’s many strengths is that is doesn’t condemn lovers of the game or blame them for its shortcomings. It is an exploration of family and of the sacrifices families make for each other, as well as a frank enquiry into the consequences of those sacrifices.
Another member of the audience I spoke to pointed out that while the show is hugely topical here in WA, it would be even more pertinent to show it in Melbourne, the heart of AFL culture. At the very least more people deserve to see such a brilliantly funny and poignant show, and hopefully the discussion it raises will continue after the final siren.
Barracking for the Umpire closes at Subiaco Arts Centre on 23rd October.
Image Credit: Daniel J Grant