October 01, 1987

A Sporting Chance

A Sporting Chance
by Katherine Thomson
Magpie Theatre Company SA
Directed by Chris Johnson
Design: Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson
Music: Ian Farr, Movement: Belinda Saltmarsh
Cast: Sharon LeRay, Michael Habib, Annabel Giles,
Michael Kitschke.

Work for Magpie’s A Sporting Chance began in April this year when Sydney playwright and actor, Katherine Thomson began researching attitudes toward sport among thirteen and fourteen year olds. She spoke to numbers of high school students-in particular from Fremont High School in Adelaide’s northern suburbs and the play reflects a range of their experiences. The changing self-perception of girls in adolescence is a subject of concern for educators and social theorists, such as Dale Spender, who have vividly shown that at about that age girls’ opportunities suddenly become less than equal, with peer group tyrannies prevailing and reactionary reaction setting in.

Using four main characters, A Sporting Chance looks at life from both sides. Michelle wants to play footy but nobody else is sure if that’s a good idea. She gets hostility from the boys and mixed messages from the coach. Her girl- friend Chris, eager to maintain the feminine stereotypes is finding her perplexingly unconventional. Ferret is the football hero his father wanted him to be – except it’s not enough. The boy anxiously looks from the field to his father watching the game with his suitcase packed to go again. Ferret’s misplaced guilt and sense of failure is disturbingly expressed.

Terry, on the other hand, is the awkward spectator. He’s there every Saturday hoping for some marginal status -returning the ball into play, carrying oranges to the team and offering plodding loyalty to its fortunes. His secret mission is to acquire exceptional stamina and she lugs a rucksack of rocks around the block in penitential jogging sessions. If Nancy didn’t have such a high powered mother, life would be simpler.

Katherine Thomson shrewdly observes that the pressures of omnicompetence can come from mums as well as dads and they can be even more difficult to deal with. Nancy, like Terry, watches from the wings, but on this particular Saturday afternoon when she escapes to her usual possie above the playing fields, she takes a fall and spends the duration of the play clambering back up the side of a cliff. Thomson’s script has some of the endearing awkwardness of the characters themselves. The observation is acute and there are moments of epiphany that make the play memorable but the narrative is a difficult one – threading action, flashback and reflection together in ways that can be confusing, particularly to younger audiences.

Also some of the detail is eccentric – undoubtedly genuine but no more convincing for being so. While it is creditable that the play extends to consider the problems of adolescents generally, in doing so it obscures identification of specifically gender-based injustices. Terry’s social and physical ineptitude is all very real but, when Thomson broadens the context, the binds that Michelle and Nancy face, simply because they are girls, are not so clearly evident and as a result the play loses impact.

But there is no lack of focus in Chris Johnson’s direction. The fluency of movement and image is adroitly maintained and quirks in the scripting are intelligently resolved. Belinda Saltmarsh, on loan to the project from the Australian Dance Theatre, has added assurance and physicality to the production which is fresh and direct. Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson have provided a bright, thrifty and functional set which centres on the use of coloured steel chairs stacked in increasingly acrobatic configurations as Nancy defies gravity and fear itself. Ian Farr’s whistles, hooters and hockey stick percussion also score well.

Magpie has assembled one of its most cohesive and pleasing ensembles in a while. Veterans Michael Habib and Sharon LeRay give uncluttered performances as Terry and Nancy with LeRay handling some scarifying clambering with creditable aplomb. Newcomers Annabel Giles and Michael Kitschke as Michelle and Ferret give convincing athleticism to the football scenes.

A Sporting Chance has much to say, at times more than it can clearly handle, but in its forthright theatrics and crisp direction it is a success and represents some of Magpie’s strongest work for some time.

“A Sporting Chance”, Lowdown, Vol.9, No.5, October, 1987.p. 75.

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