There is Shakespeare. There is Charles Dickens. There is Picasso. There is Elvis. And then, there is Swan Hill’s very own Andrew R Kelly; the celebrated Mallee icon who writes witty, authentic and relatable plays for a broad, but unconventional audience about life in the country. Give him a guitar, a fire, a few beers and a willing audience, and this multi-talented man of the arts will woo any crowd with his very being.
Written in his own unique language, Andrew’s plays show us the humorous – but glaringly honest – side of life. They have the uncanny ability to draw out the innermost – and sometimes uncomfortable – feelings from within ourselves. As one loyal fan explains, ‘there are lines in his plays that we all think at times, but we wouldn’t say in real life.’ However, Andrew tactfully disguises the raw and sensitive with spells of hilarity and realism. And we are spellbound.
Delving a little deeper, this Primary School teacher’s plays and their characters mirror many aspects of his own personality and views on small town life (not to mention our own) – bundled into a collection of masterpieces that never fail to captivate. And being the second youngest of 14 kids, I can assure you that he has some colourful history to draw inspiration from.
One such play, The Whistleblower (his third play of four), which was performed in Swan Hill in 2014 by members of the local theatre group (Andrew himself playing the unruffled character of Sarge), has now been snared by the talented Melbourne based theatre group The Baker’s Dozen. And after more than a week of successful performance in the city – not to mention shows selling out – this act of sheer brilliance will be in our Mallee midst early this week.
With the first performance due to grace our stage in Swan Hill at the Harrison Hall on Tuesday 23rd August – followed by a succession of shows touring Manangatang, Cohuna and Birchip, before returning for the final show – those looking for some clever entertainment bound by wit and humour in one tense plot, are in for a treat. And according to Andrew, it is so much better than he imagined on stage. ‘They are such a talented bunch.’
Andrew has always had a knack for storytelling and performance. Growing up on a grain farm in the small town of Nullawill with his 13 siblings, he enjoyed reciting poetry and playing the harmonica. Although he enjoyed writing as a kid, he had never thought of himself as a writer. ‘I was too busy dreaming about being good at footy than being a writer.’
Eager to learn more about the theatre in an effort to boost his playwriting ability, Andrew joined the local theatre group and absorbed as much knowledge as possible. ‘I’ve had a few roles. But when I first got into theatre, I was angling towards writing plays. I had ideas.’ But anyone and everyone who knows Andrew, knows he is always angling for an ingenious idea. ‘The ideas come when I’m almost awake; it’s like the ideas settle. There’s clarity.’
But it wasn’t until he contracted Ross River Fever in 2011 that he thought this aspiration to write may become a reality. It was the year of the floods and with the impending risk of rising floodwaters, Andrew and his family sought refuge at his in-law’s house at the top of the hill in Swan Hill. To wilt away the days of fever at home, he summoned his pen for inspiration.
And in it strolled, because that’s when Andrew’s first play, The Great Flood, was blessed upon our Mallee Plains. ‘It was a good form of Ross River because as long as I had a couple of hours sleep in the day and my anti-inflammatories, I was as right as rain. I had the time on my hands,’ says Andrew. ‘The ideas were circulating and I was cracking myself up.’ It would seem that Ross River and Andrew Kelly were destined to be together.
But as they say, behind every great man is an even better woman, and Andrew’s wife Sarina has been at the backbone of his plays in the early writing stages. Helping him work through every character and give her honest opinions, Andrew says, ‘she was my best and worst critic.’
Andrew’s own life is a compelling narrative in itself, and one – as I found out last week – that roots itself near my own. Being the only one in his family to be born in Sea Lake – as the Birchip doctor was on holidays – Andrew says his siblings always declared that he was different. As a Sea Lake baby myself though, I claim ‘legend!’
As he spoke of how the car stalled on the way to hospital every time it hit a puddle, I was baffled as to what kind of car could accommodate 14 kids. But Andrew claims it was a six seater Holden Kingswood station wagon that got the job done. ‘It fit all of us. We’d sit in the back and everyone had a knee to sit on. We’d go to footy with a couple of eskies and thermos and stuff.’
However, it’s that country upbringing – cleverly entwined in the script – that brings the raw humour and honesty to the forefront of his plays. And The Whistleblower is no exception. It tells the story of Clive, a school principal in his 30’s, who has lost his sense of male identity and worth. So he joins the local AFL umpire’s association to seek fulfilment and purpose. The play is also a clever depiction of the misuse of power and our diverse wants and needs when it comes to using it. Andrew explains, ‘some people need to be at the helm, pulling strings, making things happen. Others don’t need it, but it is community service.’
While The Whistleblower might not be your traditional form of play with its daring country town humour and ability to leave us questioning our own lives, it certainly speaks to the masses; theatre enthusiasts or the not so enthused. Even I – the sporadic theatregoer – fell victim to Andrew Kelly’s entertaining spell when I decided to go and watch The Duckplucker’s Son several years ago. People want a good story and something to think about, and Andrew’s clever ability to spin a yarn around a campfire certainly comes to life upon the stage.
It is difficult not to feel some emotional connection to all of the characters in the play; even when their actions are immoral. Even the most unlikely of females (including myself) couldn’t help but feel some empathy towards Clive and his quest for self-discovery as a man. ‘Most blokes would have felt like Clive at some stage,’ says Andrew.
The Whistleblower also explores the harsh world of thankless umpiring. As an umpire himself, Andrew claims, ‘you’re out there doing your best and people talk to umpires in a way that if they said it down the street they’d get arrested. And they think it’s normal. If someone walked into their workplace and said that to them, the cops would be called.’ Callous behaviour when these guys are just trying to ‘give a bit back.’
But the real characters of the show are the two old blokes at the bar; reminiscing of past football and umpiring days. Andrew says these two are his favourites. ‘These funny fellas took me all the way back to my childhood. They love giving kids a boost and then cutting them down to size.’ In fact, I was so charmed by these two jovial characters and their culminating performance myself that I could have leapt on to the stage and given them a high five for their ingenuity.
However, Andrew is not the only Kelly to be casting his magic spell over the arts in Swan Hill. Following in their dad’s footsteps, his three daughters Emma, Bonnie and Sophie have developed quite the talent for performing. And if their recent MC performances at the State School Extravaganza and School concerts – not to mention endless theatre and musical performances – is anything to go by, the arts in Swan Hill has another generation of Andrew R Kelly to look forward to.
So, if you’re after a deep and consuming belly laugh, a thought-provoking performance that depicts ‘real’ Mallee life, and a professional acting cast to entice you from start to finish, get yourself down to Harrison Hall (or the like) this week. Those who have not yet experienced an Andrew R Kelly play, have not experienced the true essence of country living.
Andrew Kelly, it’s a bloody credit to ya!
Check out the talented theatre company The Baker’s Dozen on their Facebook page
For more details on The Whistleblower, touring the Mallee next week…….