Belvoir, November 20


Even cute-billed, fluffy ducks do it, so it’s hardly surprising our own more belligerent species suffers bickering rivalries between fathers and sons. Fathers are loath to leave the mating/hunting field to their sons, and the sons, torn between craving approval and wanting to prove themselves better than their sires, become variously surly, aggressive and pathetic. In his new play Tommy Murphy focuses on fraught father/son relationships within the Packers.

Sir Frank begets Clyde and Kerry, Kerry begets James, and neither father can unbend their steely, power-and-wealth-obsessed ruthlessness enough to give the sons the love they crave. Resentment becomes a festering sore. In this telling of the story (which ends shortly before Kerry’s 2005 death), Kerry’s resentment forges him into a grotesquely exaggerated reincarnation of Frank, while Clyde, made of softer metal, suffers a complete estrangement from their father. James emerges more like Clyde, although desperate to out-Kerry Kerry.

John Howard. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Murphy’s last naturalistic play about real-life Australians, Mark Colvin’s Kidney, which also premiered at Belvoir Street and also had John Howard as its lead actor, was a finer work. When any writer tries to stuff bulging, unruly life into the undersized bag of a stage drama, the problem is which bits to leave out to make it fit. In Mark Colvin’s Kidney, Murphy’s adroitly-wielded scalpel ensured the awful weight of reality never crushed the light touch of his story-telling. By contrast Packer & Sons contains exchanges that are there because something like them probably occurred, not because the narrative demanded them. The resultant flabbiness is most obvious in the second half, when the recounting of James’s involvement in Jodee Rich’s disastrous One.Tel venture begins to drag. Murphy has stayed too glued to history, while, in dramatic terms, the episode is overly repetitive.

In his previous play Murphy also exhibited a singular capacity to establish character with a minimum of words, whereas here some of the minor roles can be confusing (with actors doubling parts), and the characterisation of James remains blurry by comparison with those of Kerry and Lachlan Murdoch. In part this may be down to Murphy’s attempt to capture James’s complex, conflicted nature, and in part to Josh McConville’s performance ringing hollow when James is supposed to be at his most vulnerable.

Josh McConville and John Howard. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Murphy’s depiction of the bullying Kerry, and John Howard’s performance in the role, are the production’s epicentre, to the extent that the play loses energy whenever Kerry is absent – and this despite Howard having some minor insecurities with his lines on opening night. In fact swathes of Eamon Flack’s production felt a little undercooked, and will no doubt tighten during the season. Nick Bartlett offered an especially convincing Lachlan Murdoch, McConville was more compelling as the young Kerry than as James, and John Gaden, Brandon McClelland and Anthony Harkin fleshed out the cast.

Amid the relentless slog of history and naturalism on Romanie Harper’s minimalist set, Murphy and Flack have looked for opportunities to bring bright flashes of theatricality to bear. Yet one is left with the nagging feeling that this work wanted to be a film all along (echoed by Alan Johns’ TV-theme-style incidental music), and somehow the action seems dwarfed by ghosts of the real-life characters.

Nonetheless there are some great lines and throat-gripping moments. Kerry is discussing a family business when he asks Sir Frank, “Why would you love something that doesn’t love you back?” He could have been talking about fathers and sons.

Until December 22.