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REVIEW: The Merger | Reginald Theatre (Sydney Fringe)

The Merger, Melbourne comedian Damian Callinan’s well-crafted football farce, is one of the hits of Sydney Fringe.

The Sydney Fringe Festival is a confounding thing. By turns, terrible and triumphant. At the latter end of the spectrum comes The Merger, written and performed by Damian Callinan (you might well associate his name with, say, Spicks and Specks, the Melbourne Comedy Festival or Skithouse); directed by Matt Parkinson.

A 70-minute one-man show set in the tiny country hamlet of Bodgy Creek, The Merger tells the story of the local footy team, The Roosters, which in sympathy with the flagging fortunes of the town itself is now having trouble fielding a side. The options are few. Fold the tent. Or merge with arch rivals, the loathsome Hudson’s Flat Redbacks. Coach Troy Carrington doesn’t give up easily though. He has a cunning plan to recruit asylum seekers as players. That the top of the bell curve in the team’s training regime coincides with Ramadan is challenging, but not insurmountable. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You’ve heard of the Pacific solution. Well, this is the Bodgy Creek solution. Immediately prior to this inspired stroke of genius, the town and team were up Bodgy Creek, without the proverbial.

Callinan mightn’t be a trained actor but, issues of diction aside, he’s a gift. In fact, he manages something I don’t recall having seen before and he manages it extremely well: taking the best from the world of stand-up (improvisation) and fusing it with the best from the world of acting (characterisation). This is quite something. He succeeds in responding, for example, to latecomers, or implicating particular audience members, without falling out of character, or compromising a script that’s dense with dazzling comic and dramatic brilliance.

It would be enough it were merely a good-natured critique of rural Australia, or AFL, or both, but Callinan make sit about much more than that, by dint of Troy’s savvy. The spectre of the refugee “debate” rears its ugly head, dealt with in a more poignant, articulate and early way than any pollie can seem to effect. Better yet, he’s not just succumbing to fashionable, arty-farty, left-leaning lip service. He’s actually seeking to make a worthwhile (and, above all, humane) contribution. And he does.

Troy is no ordinary coach. And not just because of his devious solution. Or because he’s just back from a climate-change summit in Copenhagen (the only country football representative, as I understand it). He’s also devised a way to maintain the tradition of ref abuse, by way of Elizabethan insults. Shakespeare’s withering epithets are, presumably, rather lost on the average flag-waving official. And his innovations don’t stop there. He’s not above recruiting women; albeit, in something of a concession to good, old-fashioned chauvinism, in a kind of tag-team arrangement.

All of this carry-on is being recorded, for posterity, by an intrepid doco maker; a 10-year-old doco maker and grandson of club president Bull Barlow, yet another of Callinan’s coterie of richly-realised characters, which he slides between with the greatest of ease and self-assurance. Bull’s hang his prostate out. Again.

Of course, Troy’s salvation plan for the club would be as nothing without a star recruit, who comes in the form of Khazar, Said Ali, an Afghan asylum-seeker “fresh” from four years in, as he puts it a “hot, shit place”, being Nauru. Funnily enough, joking about it doesn’t trivialise; rather, it underscores our inhumanity to our fellow man. (And to think, when I first contemplated reviewing this show, I didn’t know if it would be for me.)

Callinan mightn’t be a world’s best practice puppeteer, but his skills suffice well enough to eke a couple of characters out using little more than a couple of rustically adapted socks. And were it not for his skills as a writer of comedy, he wouldn’t get away with the lengthy intro and similar segues, in which a spotlit, footy-shaped radio broadcasts a community programme, including sponsorship announcements. For someone, such as myself, who’s spent a good many years in those environs, it’s side-splittingly, scarily redolent of actuality. So close, he doesn’t have to tamper with it much to make it drop-dead funny. Similarly, his evocation of locker-room antics and anthemic post-match celebrations is right on the money; an affectionate ode, that, at once, pays homage and takes the piss.

Of course, it would be downright dangerous to spend too much time in the club, anyway, as it’s been condemned, thanks to the presence of asbestos. But as Troy says, “no, that doesn’t mean it’s been heritage-listed”. Regardless of the misfortunes of the bankrupt Roosters, there’s one thing they won’t do, no matter how practical, or close to inevitable. And that’s merge with Hudson’s Flat, their traditional foe. Happily, Troy’s innovative refugee recruitment programme, doctored with a little (or a lot) of spin apropos bushfire and flood risks, secures grant money to rebuild the Roosters’ hallowed premises. Troy, ever the living embodiment of political correctness, even finds a place for men’s and women’s  prayer rooms, not to mention a minaret to crown the scoreboard.

You’ll even get a kick (no pun intended) out of those scene segues: one of the sponsorship announcements — for example, features Bruce Nation, self-proclaimed as “Australia’s favourite right-wing bush poet”. His masterworks inlude Teenie Weenie Poofter Greenie and You Say I’m A Bigot Like It’s A Bad Thing.

Yes, Damian Callinan has his finger on the socio-political pulse and a firm hand on the vernacular; unlike certain of our cowardly politicians, to say nothing of mindless commentators and their disciples, who seem to have their collective hand firmly elsewhere.

The details: The Merger plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre as part of Sydney Fringe until September 29. Tickets on the festival website.

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