British independent stage and screen have long been steeped in gritty, character-driven social realism.
Productions like Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita, Billy Elliot and The Full Monty give working classes a voice, and a glimmer of hope in uncertain times. These powerful and touching stories also speak without condescension to audiences at their level. It is therefore unsurprising that each show became an international hit in the process.
Writers and directors like Ken Loach, Lee Hall, Willy Russell and Mike Leigh continue to break political ground and in the process, have opened the floodgates for a new generation of up-and-coming artists.
Thank goodness for Red Stitch Theatre.
The Melbourne group is known for staging dynamic and often, alternative plays that may not normally achieve a long professional local run. As part of their 2014 season, Red Stitch is the launching pad for the Australian premiere of Jumpers for Goalposts.
An English comedy – drama by Tom Wells, the prolific playwright's other works include About a Goth, Cosmic, Fossils, Me: As A Penguin, and Traces. His most recognised play to date is The Kitchen Sink.
At one hundred minutes in length (with no interval), Jumpers for Goalposts is a punchy chronicle divided into a handful of short, sharp parts. Covering a six-week period, the gist of the linear timeframe is quickly clear.
Led by alpha – dog, Viv (played by Kate Cole), five very individual characters have joined forces to compete for a local LGBTI soccer trophy. Further, her rag tag band of recruits could not be more hilarious, dysfunctional or different. Think Willy Russell’s Stepping Out, but with a football twist.
Joe (Paul Denny) is Viv’s morose older brother-in-law and the token straight. Beardy Geoff (Ray Chong Nee) is a cheeky busker with dreams of becoming a singing star at Pride. Danny (Johnathan Peck) is a love-struck assistant coach working towards his training certificate. Luke (Rory Kelly) is a nervous teenage librarian determined to break out of his shell.
Without giving any of the significant plot points away, the outstanding cast make the most of every comic and dramatic moment. It should be noted that Ray Chong Nee also has a terrific singing voice, covering three popular songs as part of his quest to find the perfect tune.
As my astute guest for the evening pointed out, viewers connect with this quintet because the writer has given each player a clear back history. Every one is fully drawn, and as the story builds, the audience wants them to succeed. Wells is also able to address several serious themes and always be true to the characters. His use of dialogue is never forced or contrived.
Tom Healy directs with pacing and heart; bigger and quieter moments are equally balanced. Though there is a natural conclusion, you leave wanting more.
Jacob Battista created the appropriately colourful costume and stage design. The single set is a grubby sports club changing room, perfectly suited to each episode’s post match victory or indeed, post mortem. Lighting design by Claire Springget keeps the mood light and allows smooth transitions between scenes.
Thanks to the theatre’s intimate and raked seating, we are always at one with the action. Be prepared for a few moments of hair-raising goal kicking as well. They, like the show, will keep you on the edge of your seats.