Left - Edwin Hodgeman and Ronald Falk. Cover - Shane Porteous, Ron Haddrick, Jon Lam and Edwin Hodgeman.
Growing old gracefully - that’s got to be a cliché up there with ‘can’t teach old dogs new tricks.’ Fact is, both of those statements are wrong, as proved by the insightful play Codgers, which is like watching a wise man’s fireside tale come to life. This two-hour comedy/drama is a series of warmly interwoven stories with a deeper message, delivered with a chuckle and without any prostate prodding.
In an Aussie city gym, a group of WW2-era men gather for a workout and a yarn over coffee and saladas about the past, present and future - shown as their story, but applicable to everyone, everywhere. Set in 2007 in the months leading up to the national election, the six main characters each have their transformational arc involving acceptance - of themselves, each other and life in general. The opening scene was about getting characters set into the personality; who was the leader, who was the optimist, the joker and the worrier and that there would be humour with some in-between ponderances. Even the stage set of Gerry’s Gym with its prominent sign gives a hint to what is waiting for us: ‘Gerry says “A Change is going to come.”’
And indeed change seeps through the lives of Keith, Jimmy, Rod, Les, Patrick and Stanley, just when they’d thought they had it all figured out - had the audience seen it all before too? Old man reminiscing is a subject matter that’s come of age in the past decade, from Grumpy Old Men TV series and films and crusty characters such as Jack Nicholson’s cardigan du jour of bitter old bloke in As Good as it Gets and The Bucket List. So what is it about Codgers that keeps the subject matter fresh? For one thing, it’s Aussie Aussie Aussie oi oi oi. The quips and themes are core to Australian values, and even question what these values really are, particularly since globalisation and generational shifts have swept our lives.
The crowd at The Q was pushing more towards senior concession territory than student rates, but that doesn’t mean you’d be in for an earful of ‘when I was young’ and ‘tut tut’s. But I wondered whether those few under 25 in the audience would ‘get’ the humour. In these days of fickle Facebook friends, do younger people know what true camaraderie is like? To know that your mate’s got your back and isn’t out to stab it? Thankfully due to the character-driven script and first class acting, Codgers is enjoyable for all - but for some more than others.
Playwright Don Reid based the script on his own group of codgers, who also meet at a gym and have a chin wag, and perhaps this is why it all seems so real - I could certainly picture some of my male family members joining the men for a Salada or two. Without bells and whistles of shock value theatre, Reid instead focuses on character scriptwriting: each as distinct as any person could be, and yet chameleons taking on the hue of each other in the sunset of their lives. Though new to scriptwriting after 50 years of acting and directing, Reid has mastered satire symbolism to get one past the goalie using humorous dialog and monolog interludes to give an insight into the codgers’ minds and the change they are going through, no matter their past.
There is no protagonist starring role of Codgers - instead each character has their own secrets, troubles and past.
Edwin Hodgeman plays the savvy highflying scrooge Les Weston representing that money can’t buy everything, and who also has some marbles on the loose. The experience of Hodgeman’s acting though ensured that this did not elicit pity or revulsion, instead just a matter-of-fact-of-life representation of ageing.
There’s always got to be an Irishman and Patrick Guiness (Russell Newman) is the catholic capitalist Howard supporter who enjoys stirring Rod.
Proving that it’s never too late to be yourself, Ronald Falk plays Keith Fraser - the crusty old bugger - who leads the men in their exercise drills and is a racist, dyed-in-the-wool stereotyper. The versatility of Falk showed itself in later scenes and his change in demeanour was portrayed well through voice and gestures.
Rod Dean played by Shane Porteous is the chalk to Keith and Patrick’s cheese; optimistic, left-leaning and passionate about equality, and his comparative naïveté flowed through in his physical presence.
Entering later in storyline is the catalyst to some of the change, Stanley Chang (Jon Lam): the awkward, bright, well-meaning overachiever, who yearns for true comradeship and engenders empathy.
And then there’s the doting grandfather we’d all love to have, the doting, careful and loyal Jimmy McMurtrie by Ron Haddrick who moved about the stage with weary dignity.
The acting was supported in a seamless manner by the set design, lighting and direction.
All scenes are set in Gerry’s Gym, and the use of the stage is clever, giving clear distinction between moods of amicable coffee breaks to gut-busting workouts led by Les. The gym, like the men, has no pretensions, just the basics - well done to set designer Nicholas Dare.
For a play that’s not exactly a Lady Gaga extravaganza, the lighting design by Nicholas Higgins still managed to provide positive addition to the experience, with the fade-ins and outs making clear the time transitions.
With so many characters on the stage, it’s important to keep them busy instead of just standing around like an emo loitering outside a mall. Achieving the natural feel is director Wayne Harrison, who used the space and props and bodily gestures to convey shifts in mood.
So with a solid script, quality acting and stage work, was there anything a bit droopy?
For a tale as simple as this, the play went for two hours, which is longer than most feature films - and without any booms, sex and kapows to keep the saggy-eyelids feeling coming on. Perhaps shaving off 15 minutes (repetitive jokes, extended dialog) would provide a more rounded experience.
The sounds effects added intensity and freshness to each scene, but at times were too loud over the actors’ voices - I imagine this would particularly annoy the hearing- aided audience members.
Being a senior brings a kind of VIP entrance into the fictional world - you’ll get more of the jokes, be able to sing and whistle along to the song extracts and remember a world before HECS. Anyone under 25 might feel like an Inuit at a luau when the war-time tunes roll out, but if the youngins willing to get a glimpse of this world, the fundamentals ring true for any age: life is about change and about being able to accept.
If you like good old-fashioned tales of friendship and the meaning of life, with characters you’ll have known (or are!), then Codgers is a play worthy of turning off the telly. Even the Facebook folks would get a good time, without a clip on the ear.
a Steady Lads and Christine Dunstan production
by Don Reid
Director Wayne Harrison
Seymour Centre, Cnr City Road and Cleveland Streets, Chippendale
20 April – 1 May
(02) 9351 7940 or seymourcentre.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au
Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre
theq.net.au or (02) 6298 0290
Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre
bmec.com.au or (02) 6333 6161
Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith
jspac.com.au or (02) 4723 7600
Adelaide Festival Centre
adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au or 131 246
Princess Theatre, Launceston
5th – 7th May
theatrenorth.com.au or (03) 6323 3666
The Street Theatre, Canberra
thestreet.org.au or (02) 6247 1223
riverlinksvenues.com.au or (03) 5832 9511
Albury Entertainment Centre
alburycity.nsw.gov.au 02 6051 3051
Clocktower Centre, Moonee Ponds
16– 17 June
clocktowercentre.com.au 03 9243 9191