Left - Matt Walsh
There's something to be said for theatre shows featuring mainstream Australian content. With large, internationally produced productions dominant, and many Australian shows catering to an 'arty' niche, shows about popular Aussie icons such as Shane Warne and Australian rules football are personally welcomed. So when an AFL fanatic such as myself discovers that there's a rock opera about troubled, yet brilliant footballer (and ladies' favourite) Ben Cousins, I'm automatically excited and really want the spectacle to be an enjoyable one. Unfortunately, aside from some fair acting talent - there wasn't much enjoyment to be had.
Performing an AFL-themed show in its heartland of Melbourne it seems logical that packing it full of amusing footy references is a sure-fire way to strike gold with an audience guaranteed to contain a few footy tragics. From the start, this appeared to be the main strategy behind Ben Cousins: A Rock Opera. However, making references that aren't overwhelmingly clever, witty or creative is one way to turn a good idea on its head. Despite how much most of the audience tried to be amused, it clearly wasn't happening as we sat through one tired, obvious reference after another.
Indeed, Ben Cousins might be vain and a little on the stupid side, Eddie McGuire might have a Jupiter-sized ego and have his finger in many pies and Mick Malthouse can be strange and absent-minded as he dredges up ancient historical references to illustrate points... yet it doesn't seem enough to simply acknowledge these potentially hilarious personality quirks without building on them with some fresh, insightful humour.
Much like the dialogue, the songs were a reference-laden affair and not particularly side-splitting; a shame given that they were mostly cleverly composed and well performed.
As for the story, Ben Cousins: A Rock Opera features some hits that should have been exploited more, many misses, and a fair amount of confusion to boot. Unsurprisingly enough, the story mainly centres on the considerable highs and lows of former West Coast champion and current Richmond player Ben Cousins.
Though unfortunate for Cousins himself, there's no shortage of dramatic material concerning his past trouble with drugs and the law. Thankfully, Matt Walsh, who plays Ben does so in a skilful and believable manner. The scenes that revolve around Cousins, such as his denial over his cocaine-addict ways and eventually his solemn acceptance at the AFL's imposed terms of having to produce three urine samples a week were captivating; mostly as a result of Walsh's likeable portrayal. The latter situation provides one of the best songs of the night: ‘Three Times A Week’, a parody of The Beatles' classic 'Eight Days A Week'.
In spite of the show's title, there were far too many scenes that were either loosely connected to Cousins or seemingly completely independent of the main subject of the story. Perhaps the best example of this is the unusual and unnecessary focus on the Collingwood Football Club. Kieran Butler, the show's writer, director and performer mentioned before the show that he's a Collingwood supporter. But both on and off-stage, Ben Cousins' story doesn't heavily involve this football club, one he never played for. Therefore, as two major Collingwood-based characters (coach Mick Malthouse and president Eddie McGuire) and one minor character (former captain Nathan Buckley) hog much stage time often in complete absence of Cousins, I was left wondering what this had to do with the primary subject of the show, and whether it would ever become evident as the story evolved.
The appearance of Ned Kelly (who's dying words 'Such Is Life' are tattooed on Cousins’ stomach) was largely pointless and didn't draw more than a snigger from the audience. One of the better characters was Butler's 'New York mob boss' version of AFL chief Andrew Demetriou, but he was a needle in a haystack of ill-fit characters.
The second act saw some improvement, and gained some laughs and applause from a quiet, though vastly smaller audience since the break. Most of this improvement in my view was due to a growing affinity for Walsh's Cousins.
It seems that if the story had closely followed the adventures of Cousins, in a similar way that The Wizard Of Oz film follows Dorothy's, the story would have been much more cohesive and less confusing. I feel this would have resulted in more laughs as the audience would come to empathise with Cousins through his frequent encounters with high profile, eccentric members of the AFL elite.
In fact, given the show's lengthy 2-hour runtime, the show might well have benefitted from cutting all scenes not featuring Cousins.
Although Matt Walsh played the central character to a high standard, and the songs mostly possessed a clever edge, those chomping at the bit waiting for the footy season to return are best served elsewhere.
La Mama presents
Ben Cousins: A Rock Opera
Devised & Directed by Kieran Butler
Venue: Carlton Courthouse
Dates: March 17 – April 4, 2010
Bookings: TryBooking (March 17 - 21) and Ticketmaster (March 24 - April 4)
Part of the 2010 Melbourne International Comedy Festival