Review: The Merger at The Coopers Malthouse

By Nicola Bennett

The Merger is the one-man spectacle that abandons all the expected norms of a comedy show in the most spectacular way. Country radio features? Check. Sock puppets? Check. Hospital gowns and footy jumpers? Check and check. Damian Callinan lets loose as he sculpts the world of the Bodgy Creek Roosters Footy Club live for his audience, coming after the Merger’s acclaimed success as a feature film adaptation. Callinan uses various props and the space around him to depict the world of the Roosters, a country town footy team with crumbling clubrooms and dwindling recruits. When the idea is brought forward to boost their club numbers by inducting refugees players, it introduces conversations and situations that brings the best out of the small but mighty Bodgy Creek community.

This entire production rests on Callinan’s experienced shoulders, requiring maximum output with rapid transitions. Performing as various members of the Bodgy Creek community, Callinan brings the young, old, bigotted, idealistic, and just plain lovable to life with every creative tool at his disposal. His use of his own physicality is subtle yet truly fabulous, as his movements create such an authentic characterisation through small gestures, walking pace and stance. Callinan’s vocal stylings are similarly effective, communicating an entire backstory of a character to us through a couple of well-crafted sentences. His range of accents even when working within the Australian vernacular is a strong skill that also shapes his characters’ personas so well. The finesse of his characterisation is so effective that although there are some costume changes within the performance, they are not necessarily relied on to depict changing of characters. Instead, Callinan’s acting and comedic skills inform us of this transition instantly, a skill which is so refreshing to observe. There is minimal set design involved, just enough to serve as a grounding prompt for the audience as we shift between settings and characters, however the eye is ultimately drawn to Callinan’s performance and remains there at every opportunity.

I will admit that I was unsure about the initial direction of the performance. Those who are accustomed to more traditional comedic framework may take some time to adjust to the more creative performative style that Callinan adopts that jumps between settings and featured characters. However as the show progresses and Callinan gains some momentum with the narrative and builds our familiarity with the characters, any audience members left questioning should definitely be converted to the show’s unique approach, just as I was. There is a heart and a sense of humour to this body of work, endearing itself to the audience through familiar characters instantly recognisable from any local grassroots organisation.

The integration of a social justice message is surprisingly suitable within the material, as this approachable format and setting bridges the gap between difficult content and starting a conversation. The refugee crisis occurring under our country’s direction is a confronting and devastating issue, the individual effects of which can sometimes become lost in the broader political space. However what the Merger achieves is a raw glimpse into the individual experience of the refugee in Australia, and how something as “true-blue” as footy can have a surprisingly grounding impact on both new arrivals and those working to accept them.

Anyone made apprehensive by the football-centric theming of the show, I urge you to approach this show with an open mind. An understanding of the game is a bonus but not mandatory in order to enjoy this performance, as its core themes ultimately explore beyond the sporting field. The Merger asks big questions about a society’s moral compass, and the transformative power of compassion and fortitude in the face of uncertainty. Ultimately, for a performer to achieve his message so poignantly and with such relatable material is a credit to him and a surprise package for audiences. Kick yourself a goal this festival and grab tickets to the Merger before Sunday 21st April.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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