Packer and Sons is the latest offering by playwright Tommy Murphy with most notable work behind Mark Colvin’s Kidney and Holding the Man. The 2019 production of Packer and Sons is exactly that. It’s about the three generations of Packers – Frank, Kerry and James.
The Packers are rich subject matter – and the relationship between the men was particularly important and responsible for the shaping of the next generations, but there were no real surprises, revelations or insights. There’s no doubt that the play is well written, the characters well drawn and the dialogue spot on, but from Murphy, I wanted more. I particularly enjoyed Frank calling his sons Dum Dum (Kerry) and Fatty (Clyde).
Whilst watching Packer and Sons I enjoyed the trip through memory lane and myriad articles about the Packers I have read, and the revisiting of the One-Tel debacle was particularly delicious to revisit. With the advantage of distance, it was easier to see the road that the Packers and Murdochs had taken with Jodee Rich and his cronies. I remember working at a startup tech company during that time, and have memories of the men who were selling completely unknown business plans and burning money on living high on the hog – this took me back to those times in the early 2000s.
Old school ties are explored in this episode as is the rise of the challenging offspring.
In the generation of Frank, his children barely dared to argue with the patriarch but by the time it is James’ reign, there is a challenge and Kerry accedes to it.
John Howard plays both Frank and Kerry Packer and is particularly strong in the sick bed scenes – perhaps because he had a lot of practice in his turn in the title role in Mark Colvin’s Kidney (2017). He is also particularly menacing when he plays the bully – which he has plenty of opportunity to do as Frank and then Kerry.
There are no women in the cast, it all revolves around the men and the relationships between fathers and sons. It’s a play with much potential but it wasn’t reached in this iteration. Of course, masculinity is a particular feature of the working of these men, but their choices of women is also a telling attribute of each Packer.
The cast is superb, and some play several roles within the production. Nick Barlett is good as Lachlan Murdoch. Brandon McClelland is a standout particularly as Clyde, the Packer that Frank rejected.
Josh McConville, first as Kerry and then as James, has a complex role – full of pathos. His turn as Kerry or referred to as Dum Dum, is played with the understated that he’s needing to be loved and respected by his father. Always in Clyde’s shadow, he displays tenacity in staying with his father despite the bullying and thanklessness he shows his second son.
When McConville becomes James, there is even more pathos – for the little boy seeking approval from the father who had none from his own father and can’t give it, he doesn’t know how.
The character changing of the cast emphasises the son-becomes-the-father and the manner in which relationships perpetuate through the generations.
For me, the absence of women was acutely felt and it highlighted the need for women to play a role in the actions of the patriarchal businesses created by these men.
John Gaden’s Rupert Murdoch is sympathetically portrayed; his love for his son and his son’s comfort in his support is well conveyed.
Murphy captures the complexities of father and son relationships. The characters are well drawn, their dialogue is sharp. There is an Australian-ness in the simple delivery of age-old themes and characters. It’s truly thought provoking.
Packer and Murdoch, fans or not, there’s something in Packer and Sons for everyone – parents and older children.
Feature image: Packer and Sons. Photographed by Brett Boardman. Image supplied.