Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A one man show about footy and multiculturalism
Over the last several years, Damian Callinan has toured all over Australia with his one man show The Merger (which has also been adapted into an acclaimed feature film starring himself, Kate Mulvaney, John Howard, Fayssal Bazzi, and others). He recently concluded another season of the theatrical (solo) version at the Malthouse Theatre as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2019.
Set in the rural township of Bodgy Creek, the show is about a country footy club (the Bodgy Creek Roosters) struggling to survive, anything but keen to merge with a rival team, the Hudson's Flat Cougars. Coach Troy Carrington comes up with a brilliant solution: recruiting refugees into the club. By doing this, he ends up taking not only the footy club but the whole town on a heartwarming journey from being a monocultural, somewhat bogan, somewhat racist bunch, to a more informed, warm and inclusive community, enriched by the many contributions of talented migrants.
The show has a lot of characters, action and drama, which is rather ambitious, considering it's all performed by one man. But Callinan is a skilled performer, clearly up to the task. He uses entertaining radio station updates, character changes (including diversity of perspective in narration), hand puppetry, and a lot of audience interaction to keep the energy up throughout the show, and delivers a complex performance with not a lot of props and simple costume changes. Among the many characters he plays are club coach Troy Carrington, club president Bull Barlow, his grandson Neil Barlow (a 10 year old film making enthusiast), and Sayyid, a refugee from Afghanistan (from the Hazara community). All these, and of course the two hand puppets, have completely different personalities and perspectives, and Callinan's character work with all of them is persuasive.
The story itself is fairly straightforward, and while realistic enough overall, doesn't always seem natural or free-flowing. In the first half, some of Callinan's interactions with the audience (as the coach with his team) feel a little unclear in their purpose, and stretch on slightly longer than comfortable. In the second half, the story of the refugees and the transformation of the community feels a little too neat, and the conflict feels like it is resolved before it gets a chance to fully develop. The emotional appeal, while strong, feels obvious and slightly uninventive - although perhaps that is because it's just an honest reflection of reality.
Having said all that, there's also a lot in the script and in the performance that is tense and sometimes edgy, such as a cheeky conversation between the two hand puppets about racism and blackface. The Merger may be an overall feel-good show promoting strong messages of multiculturalism and inter-ethnic harmony, but it also has interesting moments that tease the boundaries of political correctness on the way there.