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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Essendon Champions: From Thurgood to Hird at Chapel Off Chapel - 70 minutes

Essendon supporters (including me) can rejoice in the long and storied history of the club, which has resulted in a record equalling 16 Premierships.

But along with the adulation, there has been a fair share of bruises along the way.

Most notably, of course, was the supplements’ saga of the early to mid 2010s that resulted in massive upheaval at the proud club.

Playwright Neil Cole (Shawry) takes us on a journey back to the turn of the 20th century in his comedic drama Essendon Champions: From Thurgood to Hird.

The pretence he uses is an interview between ubiquitous, lifelong Bombers’ follower Des Lane (Alec Gilbert) and journalist Mary Corrigan (Nicola Pohl), who is looking for a scoop to mark the Dons’ 150th anniversary.

Photos by Josh Lee

Vietnam veteran Lane’s involvement with the club is outlined in the play.

As the title suggests, he steps us through the years from Albert Thurgood – one of the greats of the late 19thand early 20th centuries – to Kevin Sheedy and James Hird in more recent times.

Seventy-five-year-old Lane names his four greatest Essendon players and goes on to background their history and legacy.

As Thurgood, Bill Hutchinson, Dick Reynolds and Hird are mentioned, vignettes turn to their respective years in the red and black, leading to club milestones.

That is where much humour is injected, often as a result of fans in the outer willing the team to success.

Melanie Madrigali plays supporters Grace, Sharon and Joyce, as well as the person who interviews Dick Reynolds (a role filled by Gilbert).

Matthew Richard Walsh is Melanie’s equivalent as Billy and Sam, and also morphs into Thurgood, John Coleman, Des Tuddenham and Sheedy.

Cole weaves tales of triumph and tribulation, opening the door on two bribery scandals.

Of course, there is no regaling the Bombers without hearty renditions of the mighty theme song, which – fittingly – bookend the production.

Essendon Champions is a fun-loving, heart-felt romp.

It is a trip down memory lane that carries with it the hopes and dreams of future success to build on an at times troubled history.

Neil Cole is a fine storyteller (his language is relatable) who manages to weave passion for the game and club into a 70-minute potted package.

Alec Gilbert has gravitas, as a man of depth, reason, intellect and sincerity, Cole’s primary vessel for the unfolding events.

There’s a combination of healthy scepticism and wonderment about Nicola Pohl’s portrayal of a reporter looking for insight.

Melanie Madrigali and Matthew Richard Walsh are there, in the main, for exaggerated light relief and they fill their roles admirably.

So, overall, the acting is sound, save for a few lines being fluffed here and there.

For the most part, the story moves along at pace, although I felt some of the interplay between fans at pivotal matches was unnecessarily stretched.

That is especially true of the lead up to the 2000 flag, where the hand is overplayed. An ongoing joke about listening to the radio is an example. In that case, less would have been more.

In total, the show could readily have been pared back by 10 minutes to give it more bite.

Still, take those remarks as only minor grumbles in an otherwise warm and engaging night of theatre that promises to especially delight lovers of the sash. Go Bombers!

I attended with a one-eyed Carlton acolyte and relished his decided discomfort at each reference to another Dons’ success. Isn’t footy tribalism grand?

Directed by Alicia Benn-Lawler, Essendon Champions: From Thurgood to Hird is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 7th May, 2023.


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