February 2009

Arts & Letters

The comeback kid

By Gideon Haigh
Eddie Perfect’s ‘Shane Warne: The Musical’

Consider these three vignettes from the storied life of Shane Warne, involving something that happened, then something that didn’t, then something that is.

On 10 June 2000, London’s Daily Mirror publishes front-page allegations that Warne harassed a nurse, whom he met in a nightclub in Leicester, by bombarding her with sexually explicit voicemail messages. Australians respond by bombarding the offices of Cricket Australia with telephoned complaints. Although Warne is at the time representing his English county, Hampshire, rather than on national duty, he has been Australia’s vice-captain for a successful 18 months. Cricket Australia’s chief executive flies to England, testily confronts him, then oversees a meeting of directors stripping Warne of his office, thereby thwarting his captaincy ambitions.

Five years later, almost to the day, London’s Sunday Mirror publishes a still spicier story, about a buxom budding glamour model whom Warne had purportedly pestered for sex that then proved embarrassingly perfunctory. Warne is actually representing Australia, and the story is in some respects more damaging than the episode in 2000 – in particular, it undermines the reconciliation Warne has been trying to effect with his long-suffering wife, Simone. Cricket Australia’s switchboard operators brace for the torrent of complaints ... and receive not a single call. In fact, receiving no demand, the organisation makes no public comment, and Warne bowls as well in the next five Test matches as he ever has – that is, perhaps as well as any man has bowled in cricket’s history.

Finally, at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, on 10 December 2008, a four-piece band strikes up an introductory medley, beginning with Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ – and, at once, he is among us. Warne moves shyly but visibly to centre front in the dress circle, to watch a musical based on his life, encompassing all the above and more. The audience exult – a mood that doesn’t alter for the entire evening. When creator Eddie Perfect struts to centre stage as his bumptious, been-there-done-that subject, the atmosphere is almost that of an evangelical revival. The audience laugh and cheer and applaud their way through almost three hours of his infelicities, infidelities and infantilities – and so does Warne. Paul Keating lent his imprimatur to Casey Bennetto’s hugely successful musical, although only after waiting about six weeks for signs of visible success. Warne knows no such inhibition: he materialises on stage at the end to make public his endorsement. He and Perfect walk off hand in hand.

At the end of this third vignette, everyone knows they have seen something special, but perhaps how special is elucidated only by considering the first two also: Warne, it would seem, has cajoled the public out of its tendency to periodic fits of morality to one of relaxed celebration of personal folly, through a midpoint of indifference. When Perfect/Warne sings that he’s “just another chopped tall poppy / That’s what they do when you’re an Aussie,” he’s actually overlooking his show’s evolving contribution to the legend: apparently, a chopped poppy can grow back twice as large, providing it remains true to its nature. The subject is one of the greatest of cricketers; it is also of the growth of one of Australia’s greatest, cheeriest, most companionable and inclusive of jokes – a joke all the funnier because we once took it so seriously.

You could fault Shane Warne: The Musical for perhaps not quite having the courage of its satire, for throwing a stone or two and running away: Warne’s media scolds and cynical handlers get off lightly. You could quibble with its portrayal of Warne as the most demotic of cricketers and also the supreme individualist – a tension it doesn’t quite reconcile. There’ll be some Australian team-mates who get a giggle from Warne delivering an entire song, ‘We’re Going There’, extolling the camaraderie of the beer-drinking school. There’s a delicious glimpse of Warne in Jason Gillespie’s autobiography, Dizzy (2007), holding court during a Gabba Test when a group of Brisbane Lions players dropped in:

He decided to grab a beer out of the fridge, sit in his corner, put an ice pack on his knee and have the fags nearby. Maybe he wanted to portray a bit of an “old school” image to the Brisbane lads. The rest of us all looked at each other and thought to ourselves, What’s going on here? Warnie with a beer? We were all having a bit of a giggle, and in came the Lions lads to say hi.

Nothing was really said until Glenn McGrath walked in. He sat down, noticed Warnie with a frostie and asked, “What the hell are you doing with a beer?” Warnie replied, “Bowling day, mate – just finishing the day with a beer.” Glenn responded, “I’ve never, ever seen you with a beer.” Warnie came back with, “Oh, hang on, mate: I always have a beer at the end of a bowling day.” We all pissed ourselves laughing, because none of us had ever seen him have a beer after a bowling day.

For the rest of the summer, Darren Lehmann, Gilly [Adam Gilchrist] and I took it upon ourselves to make sure that at the end of each bowling day, Shane had a beer in his spot in the rooms. We chortled away, thinking we were the funniest blokes in the world. After about six months, he said to me: “Dizzy, enough is enough, you’ve made your point – well done.”

But faulting the factual fidelity of Shane Warne: The Musical is pointless: you might as well bring an elephant to a production of Oklahoma! to see if the corn reaches eye-high. Because Perfect has gotten something brilliantly, uncannily right: he has made his musical a love story. On the face of it, Warne is a man of sex rather than of love; but he is also an incurable romantic. As his mother, Brigitte, is reported to have said: “Shane’s a good boy. He just can’t keep his dick in his pants.” Perfect has written some wonderfully, waspishly funny songs, but the numbers that nail the story down are the most poignant. At the end of Act One, Warne sweeps his young bride, Simone, off her feet, promising that one day she will be ‘Dancing with the Stars’ – as came to pass, when she was recruited for that television show as Warne’s ex-wife. At the end of Act Two, Warne having delivered the gloriously self-justifying anthem ‘Shine Like Shane’, Simone retorts with ‘What About That?’ – all broken metre and frail rhyme.

Think of all the times I got on a plane to meet you and the boys at the end of another tour

They would smile and hug me knowing full well what you’d been up to

I thought they were our friends

But they were just yours

Do you know how that feels, Shane?

Knowing your friends are not real, Shane?

What about that, Shane?

Having listened, head bowed, Warne/Perfect confides laconically in the audience: “As you can see, not everything went entirely to plan.” It might be his accounting for a spell of none for a hundred. There’s a stoic chagrin as he heads into the climactic ‘The Ashes’: “The landscape looks black / But the Ashes are a sign it’s time to grow back.” Twinned with its life toll, Warne’s career triumph is seen in starker relief.

Warne is also a sponge for adulation. As perhaps no other cricketer, public affirmation rejuvenates him – it is one of the reasons for his wholehearted embrace of the Indian Premier League, when he doesn’t need the money and hardly needs the fame. His manager, James Erskine, apparently read the script of Shane Warne: The Musical in advance, but it would have taken the experience of watching it in an excited and joyful audience to finally convert him. If he is a stranger to musical theatre, he knows all there is to know about crowds.

Shane Warne: The Musical has been almost three years in the making. You can see the work – and also not see it. One song is a notable omission from the previews at last year’s Melbourne Comedy Festival: in ‘So Take the Pill’, Brigitte Warne was played as a Sylvania Waters virago, forcing the fabled diuretic pill on her dopey, suggestible son. It was a good song in the wrong musical: cruel and gratuitous, and rightly deemed unnecessary. The dream sequence that follows is now a little long and shapeless – it is the only period where the musical loses momentum. But there’s an expansive generosity about the two-and-three-quarter hours that is quite Warnesque; songs are tossed up as gamely as leg breaks, then as cunningly as flippers and zooters. It is Warne’s past, and all our pasts. The year 2000, once the very definition of the future, now savours of nostalgia: before September 11, economic pessimism and climate catastrophism, when a sportsman’s peccadilloes still had the power to shock. These days, that’s entertainment – as Warnie always sort of said it was.

Shane Warne: The Musical also has that unusual quality of seeming like an incredibly obvious idea the minute that you hear it, although cricket and the stage in Australia are nodding acquaintances rather than bosom pals. There was a Botham: The Musical which toured Australian in the early 1980s, although it took the Cambridge Footlights to mount it. Nonetheless, Perfect’s production has one interesting antecedent. When WG Grace first toured Australia, 135 years ago, Melbourne’s most popular Christmas pantomime was Garnet Walch’s Australia Felix; or Harlequin Laughing Jackass and the Magic Bat. The allegorical plot concerned a magic cricket bat gifted by the “etherial genius” Mirth to a country lass, and used by her betrothed, Felix, in a game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Australia Felix was partly a reply to Anthony Trollope’s acid views of the antipodes in his Australia and New Zealand (1873). Walch offered cricket as a civilising counterinfluence to the corrupting powers of Mischief, represented by horseracing. Mirth describes the bat as “the symbol of the manliest game / To which I’ve ever lent my royal name / Type of true British sport, without alloy / Where you, friend Mischief, are de trop, old boy.” Australia, in Mirth’s view, was in the process of building a better Britain than the original; Britain’s pompous, dimwit ruling classes were embodied in Kantankeros, the “Demon of Dullness”.

When Warne/Perfect arrives in England on his maiden Ashes tour in Shane Warne: The Musical, two hoity-toity toffs mince past, commenting severely on “that frightfully blond man from the colonies”.  The Australians, dontcha know, are “nothing but a bunch of criminals and chronic masturbators”: the familiar caricature of Englishmen as effete snobs goes down a storm, especially as we know they’ll shortly be getting their comeuppance. It is reiterated at regular intervals thereafter that, for all the global game’s cups and kudos, no cricket matters quite so much as the ritual humiliation of the hated Pom. During the finale, lights on the illuminating backdrop form the outline of the Ashes urn. Perfect’s triumph, then, is not only to demonstrate how much can change in eight years, but how much can stay the same in 135.

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