The Packers: Josh McConville as James and John Howard as Frank. Photo by Brett Boardman.
Packer and Sons
By Tommy Murphy
Directed by Eamon Flack
A Belvoir Production
18 & 25 Belvoir Street
Season: 16 November – 22 December. Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au
There is one particular scene in Packer & Sons which encapsulates the environment in which James Packer grew up in. His father Kerry wants young James (about 12 years old) to learn how to face a fast bowler. Kerry has just bought the latest automatic bowling machine and, under the supervision of one of Australia’s Test cricketers, wants the machine set at the speed of a Jeff Thompson fast delivery. Arguably, 160 km/h.
James is at the crease, bat in hand, listening to his father rant and rave, too young and naïve to challenge his dad’s dangerous training instructions. The test cricketer is refusing to set such a fast pace, so Kerry takes the bat and insists that the ball be sent. WHAM!! Kerry’s big frame cops the ball on the shoulder and stumbles, expletives flying with his proverbial tail between his legs. James stands by aghast. Just one of life’s lessons from a Packer. Good one Kerry!
Welcome to the world of the Packers. Or, at least one version of it, according to the writer Tommy Murphy. His play, Packer & Sons is a well-researched and absorbing black comedy set in the boardrooms and backrooms of what once was, Australia’s wealthiest family dynasty.
It’s a whirlwind story to watch on stage. Spanning roughly 50 years from the 1950’s to the 2000’s, Murphy writes in the manner that the Packer’s speak: loudly, confidently, bluntly and always with lashings of four-letter words. There’s lots of drinking, smoking and brawling as the big fella’s in the Packer business nearly always get what they want. It seems as if no one is immune from their power and influence. “I decide when we make a Prime Minister wait” boasts Frank Packer.
By the early 70’s, Frank Packer is Australia’s undisputed media king, owning the Nine Network and a string of publications. He’s been grooming his eldest son Clyde to take over command of the empire. His younger son Kerry has had a chequered youth involving gambling debts and drinking bouts, as well as a car crash in which three people died. Therefore, good judgement in his life has been conspicuous by its absence. Frank refers to Kerry as “Dum Dum”, and it’s not said affectionately. Later he bemoans: “Rupert Murdoch. The son I never had”.
Clyde, on the other hand, seems to be the clever son. However, Frank denies the opportunity for advanced education, claiming that “university will only make you a communist”.
As Kerry starts to show some business nous, the tables get turned and he ultimately gets full control when Frank dies in 1974.
This production is a terrific collaboration between writer Murphy and Director Eamon Flack. There is a huge, wide stage available and the backdrop is a matrix of opaque glass panels, reminiscent of 1990’s corporate cubicle screens. Set changes are brilliantly executed on stage and some characters magically transform from young to old before our eyes.
Costumes (Romanie Harper) did very well with the task at hand, meeting the needs of polo field, hospital, boardroom and cricket pitch with ease. Lighting (Nick Schlieper) and Sound (David Bergman and Steve Francis) stood out, especially the simulated helicopter landing!
The actor’s ability to portray their multiple characters was exemplary. John Howard as the older Kerry Packer/Frank Packer had the physique and appropriate gruffness to scare the pants off any subordinate. Supported by Brandon McClelland as Clyde, Nick Bartlett as Lachlan Murdoch/young Rupert, John Gaden as older Rupert/Nick Falloon and, Anthony Harkin as Jodee Rich, the whole ensemble was perfectly cast. Not to mention young Nate Sammut as Boy James/Boy Kerry.
However, I feel outstanding status belongs to Josh McConville who played James Packer and young Kerry Packer. His ability to grasp the emotional dynamics of James was extraordinary.
At the end of the day, the story is about James Packer. Affected by a bullying father and grandfather, it’s not in James’ DNA to continue in the same tradition. With the disastrous One.Tel experience behind him, James has attempted to exit media and dominate casino’s in Australia and abroad. It’s not been easy, and the mental strain must be enormous.
Packer & Sons tells a riveting story, although its completely male dominated. Whether the writer chose to ignore female influences in the Packer world or not, it may have been an interesting inclusion in this story. Which is clearly not over yet, by a long shot.
There is a lot to enjoy in this production at Belvoir. It has to be a “must see”. If nothing else, you will have an opinion of the Packer’s after the show.