Grand final theatre

The Longest Minute (Queensland Theatre with debase productions and JUTE Theatre Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 26 – June 23

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Given their shared drama, theatre and sport are not that different. Yet rarely do the rituals combine. And even more infrequently do they fuse together to produce a work as significant as “The Longest Minute”, Queensland Theatre’s co-production with debase productions and Cairns’ JUTE Theatre Company, which centres around the final golden-point minute of the conclusive and premiership-deciding 2015 all-Queensland NRL Grand Final.

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After years of defeat, the seemingly impossible occurs when the North Queensland Cowboys claim their first premiership title in their twentieth year of the competition. This is Townsville, where life runs at a different pace and rugby league is a religion that, in mixed-metaphor, is heralded by King of the North, Johnathan Thurston. Our protagonist Jessica Wright (Chenoa Deemal) is a footy fanatic who wants to be a fullback like Hopevale legend Matty Bowen and play football (not netball or touch football) for the Cowboys and Queensland. It’s all her parents fault; not only are white mum Margaret (Louise Brehmer) and Aboriginal father Frank (Mark Sheppard), unwavering fans, but she was born on the night of the NQ Cowboy’s first Winfield Cup game at the then Stockland Stadium in 1995.

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Football is in Jess’ blood; her father is the locally-famous former Foley Shield player Frank ‘The Black Flash’ Wright and her introverted brother Laurie (Jeremy Ambrum) is a talented Academy player, despite having a deep-seeded disinterest in playing professionally. And so Jess dreams of playing in the Jillaroos Australia women’s national rugby league team, even though the rules are that she can only play locally in the mixed team until she turns 13. And so “The Longest Minute” is the simultaneous story of (as its tagline proclaims) one football club, one family and one unforgettable NRL grand final. As such, it is a uniquely Queensland tale but also ultimately a wider one, with automatic appeal to not only sunshine-staters but all regional Australians who perhaps rarely see themselves accurately represented on stages.

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Opening night sees a real sense of comradery, community even amongst the audience (many of whom are wearing Cowboys or Broncos supporter gear) as ‘Eagle Rock’ soundtracks a volunteer’s footy skills on a single-set stage that has been transformed into a grassy league field, with scoreboard to signpost the passing of years and the location of scenes.

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The striking lighting (Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright) and soundscape (sound design/composition by Kim Busty Beatz Bowers) is used effectively throughout, such as in establishing the thrill of being on the hill in perfect spot to watch your team lose (design by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesoreri). And when a ‘Queenslander’ chant commences before the siren signal of ‘game on’ for the start of the show proper, the palpable spirit and engery is unlike anything usually experienced in a theatre setting. Then the narrative begins with audio recording of that final minute, almost too tense to watch, which saw the Cowboys turn around 21 years of being a joke’s punchline.

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Even though the match in question is regarded as one of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history, it is the off-field drama that occupies the story’s attention. And like sport, the show is full of good times (and abundant hilarity) along with tension, and there is an uncertainty around the direction it takes to its ultimate outcome. Indeed, the craftedness of Rovert Kronk and Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s script is such that it takes audiences from riotous laughter in one moment to the shared silence of absolute shock in the next. These are real and complex characters for whom sorry is said through a stoic attitude as much as actual words of apology. As a North Queenlander, it made me feel so many things over its twists and turns… proud, sad and nostalgic for Phelan’s pies and follow of the quality players to come out of the Foley shield North Queensland league competition.

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In its touches on sexism in sport, racism, disparate small town (despite being a city) life and cultural identity, the show offers many moments of light and shade thanks to Bridget Boyle’s considered direction and the affecting performances of all cast members in roller-coasting the audience through the agony and ecstasy of its story. Deemal is fantastic as the feisty Jess, showing equal parts warmth and passion as she journeys from school girl to determined adolescent. Sheppard is especially wonderful in early scenes where he is full of ‘Black Flash’ bravado and as his down-to-earth wife Margaret, Brehmer is initially hilarious and later emboldened as a mother trying to ease family tensions and the aftermath of tragedy.

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A largely underused Ambrum brings physical comedy to his initial scenes as a toddler, but this is ultimately not where he leaves his mark. Lafe Charlton is stoical as a laconic Uncle Gordon from Cloncurry and, along with David Terry, he pops into the action with some hilarious moments as a variety of characters in the ensemble.

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Like any epic league match, the show’s emotional roller coaster is over in an hour and a half, but it is 90 minutes during which so much happens. In offering a perspective on the world in which we live beyond just a sense of humour, it also holds a mirror to our society whose image we might not necessarily find comforting. Like Rugby League itself, however, “The Longest Minute” will not only break your heart, but fill it with soul (and side-splitting laughs). Most importantly though, it tells one of our stories and widens theatre’s cultural landscape, making it accessible to audiences beyond just traditional theatre fans to those sports-lovers who think theatre is not for them, and for that it must be applauded.

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