Verdict: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 (reviewed 3 November).
I’ll be honest, I did not expect to enjoy this play as much as I did. This plot about two rival country clubs fighting it out on a golf tournament on an English countryside sounded rather quaint, and…y’know….golf. Not my thing. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how much I connected with the story, thanks to some very decisive and engaging directorial choices by Tom Richards, and a fantastic cast of men and women that kept this story ticking along.
The Fox on the Fairway by Ken Ludwig is a farcical romantic comedy that pokes at the fragile male ego in the testosterone world of competitive sport. Stuffy middle-aged Englishman Henry Bingham is Executive Director of the esteemed Quail Valley Country Club, which, despite strict membership rules, has lost the golf tournament 5 years in a row. Bingham is at risk of losing his position if his club loses the tournament again. He wagers a ridiculous bet with his rival, Dickie, a promiscuous snake-in-the-grass from Crouching Squirrel club who steals Quail Valley’s tournament pro. In a panic Bingham finds another star player in his new recruit, Justin, an enthusiastic but hyper-sensitive chap prone to ADHD.
Justin has just proposed to his girlfriend, Louise, a waitress at the Quail Valley club with a passion for quoting Greek philosophy. When Justin’s fragile emotional state goes into overdrive after Louise loses her engagement ring and the couple start arguing, Bingham and his Vice-President, Pamela Peabody, corral to bring him back to the course.
Meanwhile, Bingham is secretly in love with Pamela, ex-wife of Dickie. And Dickie is having an affair with Muriel, Bingham’s insufferable army-tank wife who thinks nothing of berating her husband publicly by flogging him violently with a rolled-up newspaper.
This production works because of the actors’ commitment to the energy and impulses of their characters. Nothing is ‘held back’. A slap is a slap, not a half-assed mime that so many productions of late seem to favour (FYI, back in the day actors were taught to how slap and punch without hurting the other actor). The technique looks and sounds very convincing. The use of props adds tension to the farce, as they chase each other round the room with threats of breaking hugely expensive antiques. There is a scene where Bingham tees off a golf ball perched on Mrs Peabody’s lips as she is lying down on the floor in a silky cocktail evening dress. In an earlier scene an oyster slithers down her cleavage, while Bingham looks on, bemused and dare we say, a little aroused (without crudely saying so). The adult humour in this production has such great physical comedy laced with vitriol and sarcasm, and yet nothing ever feels ‘icky’ or ‘wrong’ as the cast are entirely age-appropriate. They own it, and are to be highly commended for it.
Gary Clark’s performance as Henry Bingham reminds me of Sir Laurence Olivier’s acting technique, affectating a superior English accent that suits his character’s condescending sneer while revelling in the fun of pretending to be someone else. Clark plays a serious character in a troubled marriage, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. The other actors play off this persona, creating the comedic charm that makes this play very engaging to watch. His rival, Dickie is played by Manni Nicolaou, who courageously stepped into the role at the 11th hour. Nicolaou uses this trepidation to his advantage, never losing his focus on his opponent. As Dickie, he reminds me of a greasy villain in a Clint Eastwood western, even when wearing those hideous god-forsaken jumpers.
Matthew Coumpos as Justin and April Ilic as Louise embody the callowness of anxiety-ridden youth, with a great deal of chemistry and histrionics. I particularly enjoyed Justin’s ‘yoga scene’ and the scenes where he is over-medicated and on the verge of blowing up. I could also relate to Louise’s sudden lockdown reaction to a slightly insensitive remark. Louise saves the day with superior golfing skills and courage inspired by Greek heroism, which is a lovely thing for a male playwright to include (too many male playwrights, IMHO, keep their female characters trapped in their own neurosis, but here Ludwig acknowledges they damn well can be whatever they want). Equally feisty is Melissa Myles as Muriel, the lady with an iron-will who is not just one-dimensional. Her husband might resent her power, but she is a businesswoman who tolerates no excuses, and could totally command anyone to snap out of their victim-status. She also lovingly knitted Dickie’s jumpers, so there’s that.
Last but not least, Lila Micevska as Mrs Peabody is fun, flirty, sexy and open to the wildness of things, like a bottle of sparkling champagne just waiting to pop. I loved the big reveal of finding her long lost daughter; it was unexpected and (in any other production) could have been contrived, but it felt so authentic and warm and had us all beaming with happiness.
Overall, The Fox on the Fairway is a feel-good play that makes you appreciate the rigour of being past a certain age, when you are in the prime of your life, with all the promise of finding love again in a hopeless place, and the adventure of being alive.
The Fox on the Fairway is playing at Arts Theatre Cronulla until 2 December. For tickets and showtimes, go to https://www.artstheatrecronulla.com.au/thefoxonthefairway
Image credit: Port Hacking Camera Club