To this day, there has never been an openly homosexual professional AFL footballer. Sporting clubs are home to lots of homosexual slurs and homophobic attitudes. And every time a sports star comes out it makes international news. In short, it's still a really big deal right now if you're gay and you play sports.
So perhaps there's never been a better time than now for a play like The Sheds to deconstruct the barriers to the AFL welcoming gay players. Written and directed by James Cunningham, the show takes the audience into the team ‘sheds’ (the locker room) of the Fitzroy Fighters, an AFL team going into the new season hopeful of becoming premiers.
The play opens with Darren Anderson (Patrick Chirico) having just come out to the rest of his team and the world, through the lens of a media conference. We see Darren and his team mates Liam (Ludwik Exposto) and Jimmy (Andii Mulders) navigate their way through a full season, all from the team sheds. Liam acts as a narrator and guide to the audience, providing exposition between scenes.
While the club initially projects acceptance of and tolerance toward Darren, cracks in this welcoming attitude become clear as the season progresses, exemplified by ever more frequent and dramatic outbursts from Jimmy.
I wish I could say better things, I really do, but the show has a number of flaws that made it uncomfortable and quite disappointing.
The show does have its merits - the language and culture on display is exactly what you might expect in the boys club that is an AFL club, and the performers certainly look the part. You do feel like you are eavesdropping on conceivably real conversations in locker rooms.
Unfortunately, the cast are often too softly spoken, or too fast paced with their speech that it is hard to understand and follow the scenes. The audience, while forgiving, is ultimately let down by just a few too many slurred sentences and missed lines.
The most extreme example of this on the night I attended was the entire beginning of a scene flubbed by Exposto, who started to perform the opening monologue of the previous scene all over again, before realising a few lines in, backing off the stage and beginning again.
Ultimately though, the biggest problem is with the plot. Jimmy is the antagonist in the show, but through a series of emotional scenes the audience is clearly pushed to empathise with him and excuse his homophobia. However, not enough is ever demonstrated to warrant this sympathy and Jimmy never proverbially 'saves the cat'.
This apologism for homophobia is then taken to the extreme in the final scenes. Darren not only starts to blame himself and his coming out for the violent outbursts of others (an entirely normal experience for young queer people), but has this idea actively reinforced by the ostensibly 'good guy' Liam.
While a show of this nature is certainly not obligated to have a happy ending in which the entire team bind together despite their differences and go on to win the footy season (or whatever), the ending of this show leaves a sour taste in the mouth and there is no sense of closure after the ambient lights have been switched back on.
Following the performance, it was difficult to find a member of the predominantly gay male crowd speaking positively about the show they had just seen.
If you're planning on heading along to The Sheds, come prepared for strong language and nudity, and to feel a little weird about the whole thing afterwards.
Originally written for The Australia Times