The Underarm

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

14/09/2006 - 14/10/2006

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

25/10/2006 - 25/11/2006

Production Details

Written by David Geary and Justin Gregory
Directed by Stuartr Devenie

Set design by Sean Coyle
Lighting design by Martyn Roberts

The world premiere about an event that shocked the sporting world – the delivery of “the ball of shame” is the ring in which this battle is fought.  The ball of shame refers to an underarm bowl that Trevor Chappell delivered to Brian MacKechnie in a one day cricket match in 1981.  The kiwis needed six runs to tie the game, but Greg Chappell (Aussie captain and Trevor’s older brother) wanted nothing of this.  He ordered his brother to bowl underarm, a legal but less than moral tactic (well that’s how Kiwis see it).  It made headlines around the world, it ruined lives and sparked a rivalry that continues to this day.

Colin and Don Lewis were there that day and 25 years later they are watching a game at the Basin Reserve.  One brother lives in Oz and the other NZ.  And so, to mask the boredom of waiting during a rain break, they decide to put the case to trial.  And thus the fireworks begins!!!

This is a story of family, rivalry, comedy, tragedy and sportsmanship or is it gamesmanship?

You be the jury! 

Chris Brougham
Alan Brunton

Theatre ,

2hrs, incl. interval

Actors keep their eyes on the ball

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Oct 2006

As infamous as the disallowed try against Wales back in 1905 is the bowling of the last ball of the one-day match between New Zealand and Australia twenty-five years ago in Melbourne. It was, as every outraged Kiwi will never forget, bowled underarm by Trevor Chappell on orders from his brother Ian, the captain of Australia, to the brave, battling Brian McKechnie who needed six runs off the ball to win the game.

This notorious incident simply added more petrol to the fire of the sibling rivalry between loud-mouthed, beer swilling, bullying older brother Australia and the younger, smaller, slightly timid, pleasanter, sportsmanlike, thoroughly decent New Zealand.

Out of this rivalry David Geary and Justin Gregory have fashioned a raucous comedy set on the embankment of the Basin Reserve (look for the Basin’s code of behaviour above the door to Circa 2) where two brothers, Don and Colin, meet to watch a test match, relive and put on trial the Chappell incident, and along the way poke fun at Transtasman feuding, national stereotypes, cricket personalities of the time, their own dysfunctional family and sibling rivalry.

Don, brought up in Oz and as Ocker as they come, is visiting his younger brother Colin, who still lives with their mum in Wellington. Both attended the notorious game as children with their parents in Melbourne but the family split up acrimoniously shortly after.

At one point it seemed that the comedy was going to take a serious turn and be inflated with significance but luckily the moment passed or was forgotten or discarded by the playwrights, just as they forget or discarded the trial in the second act. However, they get back on track with yet more comic sledging matches between the brothers, the countries, the cricketing personalities, and occasionally between Don and the audience.

Played at a furious pace with some wacky comic effects (masking tape moustaches) the actors, Christopher Brougham and Alan Brunton, never falter as either the Chappell brothers or Colin and Don or the numerous personalities they speedily impersonate such as Saint Donald Bradman, Sir Richard Hadlee, Sir Robert Muldoon and the inebriated Rod Marsh.

Christopher Brougham as Colin easily wins our sympathy – well, he is a Kiwi – and because he’s the underdog, and while I know all Australian men are loud, boisterous and vulgar there were times when I wished Alan Brunton’s Don didn’t shout so much. There are scenes when both actors seem to think that the audience is on the other side of the Basin Reserve and not just a few centimetres in front of them.

By the way, you don’t have to be a walking Wisden to enjoy the comedy.


Moya Bannerman October 30th, 2006

I am bemused by Laurie Atkinson’s comment, “At one point it seemed that the comedy was going to take a serious turn and be inflated with significance but luckily the moment passed.” For me the play would soon have palled had it gone past, say 20 minutes, without going deeper than a broadly comical Oz v NZ revue sketch. Certainly it is a matter of tone but surely Mr Atkinson has been around long enough to know that comedy grounded in strong human emotion, with important things at stake, works far better than trivial send-up. As I understand it, it is the deeper/darker side that has been brought more to the surface in the development that has happened since it opened at Centrepoint (with Justin Gregory working with director and cast to work up the rewrites). I say good on them all. How could the play achieve any real sense of resolution without it? Maybe both writers will take some time after this season to tidy it up with one more draft (I agree with John Smythe’s observation that it got a bit chaotic in parts and the end was a bit confused) … But I just want to affirm here the great value of the serious stuff in generating good comedy and making the show much more entertaining than it otherwise would have been.

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Brothers at the crease

Review by John Smythe 27th Oct 2006

You have to be there.

It’s one thing to rip the scab off a tinny but to expose the running sore of Kiwi/Aussie relations by reuniting – if that’s the word – two estranged brothers 25 years after the infamous "ball of shame" split their family asunder … Mate, I’m telling you, it makes for bloody good theatre.

They meet on the bank of the Basin Reserve for a five day cricket test. And testing times they will prove to be. Testes get a mention too, apropos that one ball, which in retrospect adds up to two balls of shame. Like I said, you have to be there.

On the Basin’s grassy knoll, backed by the familiar white-topped brown wooded fence, with bits of the internal white picket fence also in evidence – a beaut bit of set design from Sean Coyle, lit by the ubiquitous Martyn Roberts – Kiwi public servant Col (Christopher Brougham) is pulling the classic sickie. Somehow he’s talked big brother Don (Alan Brunton) into joining him, all the way from Brisbane.

So there’s Col with his little chilly bin, neatly wrapped sandwiches courtesy of Mum (who’s more than a little bit crook, it turns out), a surreptitious flask of wine, a neat little NZ flag … But when Don arrives straight from the airport, everything is bigger: his Esky with its hidden compartment of cold ones, his Aussie flag, inflated hands, ego, bravado, guts and gall …

Y’see Mum’s a Kiwi and Dad is – or was – an Aussie who met her on a piss-up trip through the land of the long white foam. Both boys were born in Brizzie – Don’s the elder (named after Bradman); Col’s the younger (Mum wanted him named after a well known Kiwi cricketer but there wasn’t one in ’71) – but it was in Melbourne, on 1 February 1981 at the MCG, that the parents’ mutually abusive boozy relationship finally turned to custard.

Who exactly hit who first after the game, and under what provocation, remains a point of contention but the fact remains that one little weak-as-piss act on the part of those Chappell brothers was the catalyst for an explosive family break-up that, to be fair, was probably inevitable anyway. Dad and Don went back to Brisbane, Mum and Col came home to New Zealand … No wonder that underarm still stinks.

You know the one. World Series, third one-day final. Australian Captain Greg Chappell instructs his little brother Trevor to deliver the last ball lawn-bowls-style so Kiwi batsman Brian McKechnie’s got no chance of hitting the six that would draw the game … Both Prime Ministers – Muldoon and Fraser – pronounced it a low point in sportsmanship (the even more divisive Springbok rugby tour of NZ happened later that year). Whenever Kiwis and Aussies meet, that underarm pustule rises for another squeeze.

So a quarter of a century on, when a sodden wicket delays play, the past steps up to the crease of memory, ready for action. Thus the story of one set of brothers plays out against that of another, in a popular theatre style that involves the audience in a friendly game way, in total contrast to the lack of friendliness the boys are dealing with. It kicks off (to mix my sporting metaphors) as a kangaroo court, touches on TV game show conventions but largely gets re-enacted with a potent blend of wacky props, broad caricatures and heartfelt passions. It’s comedy that creases you one minute then whacks you in the guts the next.

The script development’s a story of partnership too. Co-written by Justin Gregory (whose idea it was) and David Geary (mostly from his expatriate possie in Canada), this production – dynamically directed by Stuart Devenie – opened at Centrepoint in Palmerston North a month or so ago and now it’s come to the Wellington’s Circa Two venue. So it’s well run in.

Brougham and Brunton do an excellent job of geeing up (there I go again) the audience and capturing the blokey humour style while nailing the essential moments of insight, vulnerability and pain that elevate this kind of comedy from revue sketch to true play status.

Brunton’s heavily accented Don is hugely boorish, and why not when he bludgeons his little brother with lines like, "You got some new hairy-backed sheila to play dead turtle for you?" While his replicating of their father’s persona adds to our understanding of their past, it also becomes apparent that all Don’s toughness is equal and opposite to the hurt he feels deep down at having to grow up without his Mum. His one distilled moment of vulnerability, very near the end, neatly changes the relationship status.

Col, of course, gets to be vulnerable early on and win audience sympathy much more readily as the bullied little brother. But the writers and actor don’t resile from revealing the vicious side he has automatically cultivated in self defence. Brougham takes us on a theatrically thrilling rollercoaster ride of human emotions, avoiding any temptation to sacrifice texture for speed.

In partnership their teamwork is excellent, in the classic tradition of big/little comic duos.

Director Devenie puts an emphasis on pacing that challenges the audience to keep up, remain inquisitive and pay attention as fast, curved and spun deliveries, bouncers, googlies and the odd bodyline hit, combine to tease out the deeper dimensions of The Underarm. It does get a bit chaotic at times but that comes with the genre.

I assume all the stuff at the end about evading cops and having to climb back into the ground in each other’s team colours, is by way of reuniting them against a common foe and suggesting the start of some kind of resolution. The Mum thing still has to be confronted but there’s a sense that’s going to happen before the other test plays out. (Kiwi playwrights and/or their audiences still have difficulty, it seems, with dramatising such emotional breakthrough moments without embarrassment. We accept them in plays from America, Britain, Russia, Norway … but not so readily in out own.)

You don’t have to be a cricket-lover (I’m not) to be entertained by The Underarm. Anyone – male, female, young, old – whose life is touched by sibling rivalry at any level, or by trans-Tasman rivalries in any arena, let alone by the blokey humour that surrounds male sports (witness the sports panel shows on TV), will find this show insightful, enlightening and engaging.

You really do have to be there.


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Cricket play needs practice

Review by John C Ross 21st Sep 2006

Way back in February 1981, the Chappell brothers secured an Aussie win in a one-day cricket match in Melbourne against a Kiwi team, through Greg’s ordering his brother Trevor to deliver the last ball of the last over underarm, making it impossible to score from. This episode still retains iconic and proverbial status on our side of the ditch, as to the depths to which some Ockers will sink, to win, in anything.

David Geary’s new play, written with Justin Gregory, centres on the ramifications of that incident, as re-visited by two cricket-mad brothers, Don and Col, in the present, and re-enacted by the two role-changing actors. It’s potent stuff, but not a great deal to hang a full-length play on. 

Not a lot happens in the first half. It takes a while for it to become clear that Aussie Don (Alan Brunton) and Kiwi Col (Christopher Brougham) are older and younger brothers, and that Don’s ferocious sibling rivalry reflects that of his nation. Their relationship develops more strongly in the second half.

On the plus side, there’s an enjoyable playing with national stereotypes, yet with more complex and individual things going on as well. There’s much that is interesting, including the malevolence towards his successors of the aging Don Bradman (one of Brougham’s roles), and a surprisingly effective plea by Greg Chappell (one of Brunton’s) for the audience as judges to appreciate the exhausting pressures upon him, at the end of a long, hot day, and of too many previous games. And as Chappell says later, cricket is not a game for gentlemen – it only looks like one.

Stuart Devenie’s directing and Alan Brunton’s and Christopher Brougham’s acting are admirably full-on. All the same, on the first night, for me at least, Brunton’s over-thick Strine accent made some of his punch-lines incomprehensible, and this aspect could well be fine-tuned.

The primary setting is ostensibly Wellington’s Basin Reserve, suggested schematically by portions of grassy bank, and of wooden fencing, but with absence of detail allowing easy transition to plenty of other implied locales.

This is a middling-quality play that some theatre-goers will enjoy more than others. It will obviously appeal to those who are keen sports-partisans, and not-too-easily offended.


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A riot of trans-Tasman comedy

Review by Richard Mays 18th Sep 2006

Owzat! It’s hard to think of a more riotous comedy. The Underarm rises from an all-time low in trans-Tasman sporting relations. And rise in crescendos of laughter it does.

Turns out, this larrikin play is actually a long-term sledging match between two brothers separated by the infamous 1981 one-day match. 25 years later, big brother Don and little brother Colin join on the Basin Reserve embankment ready to watch another test cricket clash.

Raised on opposite sides of the Ditch, the two have a number of long-standing issues to resolve. A lengthy delay in the start of play provides ample opportunity to drunkenly reopen festering wounds – including the underarm ball bowled at Brian McKechnie by Trevor Chappell.

In defence of Aussie captain Greg Chappell who made the fateful decision, Alan Brunton’s Don is a huge creation. From the moment he enters with road-train-sized Australian flag, eski, and swagger, he cops a spontaneous barrage of empty beer cans from the audience, but rides the jibes with equanimity and great Ocker style.

Chris Brougham’s Kiwi Colin may play the minor key in this symphony of sibling rivalry, but with magnificent poise and timing makes the prefect foil.

Laddish, but not without poignancy or intelligence, The Underarm is easy to be swept up in, even for those with minimal cricketing knowledge or appreciation.

Do grab two cushions at the door – it’ll be more comfy on the atypical bleacher style seating. Then relish the opportunity to barrack the performers, before rising to applaud them.


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