The story of the Packer family is well-known, at least from the outside, given the broad media coverage. Writer Tommy Murphy has aimed to frame that story by focussing on the business world of the Packer empire, with the father-son dynamic as the play’s guiding force. In doing so, he has elected to use an all-male cast. There’s plenty of real-life drama to put on stage, and Murphy has clearly done his research, but in exploring the characters he doesn’t get under their skin enough to make a strong emotional impact.

Josh McConville and John Howard. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Directed by Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack, Packer & Sons begins with a briefly revealed tableau, which drew a roar of approval from the opening night crowd. The eruption of laughter made it hard to adjust quickly to the frenetic scene that followed (after a longish blackout), where Kerry Packer is on the ground having had a heart attack at the polo, which leaves him clinically dead for six minutes. Establishing the right tone for scenes proved problematic now and then, at least on opening night. What’s more, if you didn’t know about that particular heart attack, you might have found it hard to work out what was happening given the cross-fire of shouting between the characters.

Packer & Sons follows three generations, with the doubling of the cast emphasising the impact of father on son. John Howard plays Sir Frank Packer and the older Kerry Packer, Josh McConville plays the young Kerry and Kerry’s son James, with Brandon McClelland as Kerry’s brother Clyde.

The play ticks off all the events you’d expect: Sir Frank launching the Australian Women’s Weekly, Kerry launching Cleo and establishing Channel Nine where he initially shared the managing director role with his son Clyde before they had a major fall-out, Kerry’s heart attacks and kidney transplant, and James’s involvement with the disastrous One.Tel venture.

Josh McConville and John Howard. Photograph © Brett Boardman

We see how powerful, wealthy fathers like the Packers dictate to their sons, how they want their offspring to take on the family business and yet still remain beholden to them; how the sons want to make their own mark yet still desperately crave their father’s approval and affection. We see how hard it is for the older generation to grasp the new – Sir Frank didn’t understand the future impact of television as Kerry did; Kerry failed to comprehend where smart phones and the internet would lead, while James showed considerable foresight regarding the digital future. Yet too much of this comes across as mere bio-drama, rather than the play taking a deeper line on the issues and human conflicts involved.

A scene in which the young Kerry, who is prone to drunken partying, is involved in a car crash in which three young men are killed feels far too flippant; we should be shocked at the way he is so cavalier about their deaths, while Sir Frank quickly steps in and organises to have it quietly handled. Yet it’s dealt with in a few minutes and on we go to the next event.

One of the most powerful scenes features Kerry forcing James, while still a boy, to face a cricket ball being fired at him from a machine (not designed for cricket), which is seriously dangerous, as the coach warns him. It really captures the bullish brutality of Kerry’s parenting and his determination that James ‘man up’. It actually made me shudder, but there’s not enough with this kind of impact.

Nate Sammut. Photograph © Brett Boardman

The decision to only show the men within their own world, relating to the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Jodee Rich, but no one in the broader world, reduces our understanding of them. We never get to see the charm and persuasiveness they must have had. The excision of the women in their lives also feels like a mistake. It means that we only see their business side, making their characterisation feel more one-dimensional. And even though they operated in a ruthlessly ambitious, macho world, women weren’t entirely absent here either; Ita Buttrose was key to the success of Cleo, for example.

The play is well staged on an open set by designer Romanie Harper onto which desks, chairs and hospital beds are quickly moved by the cast. John Howard is the anchor of the production giving a commanding, menacing performance as Sir Frank – a domineering bully who called his sons Fatty (Clyde) and Dumb-Dumb (Kerry) – and the older Kerry who was clearly his father’s son.

Josh McConville does a good job in moving between the ultra-cocky young Kerry and the less confident James, while Brandon McClelland is excellent as the decent Clyde, who longed to study at university and was accepted by Cambridge, but wasn’t allowed to go.

Nick Bartlett and John Gaden. Photograph © Brett Boardman

In smaller roles, Nick Bartlett as young Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, John Gaden as the older Rupert Murdoch and Nick Falloon, and Anthony Harkin as Jodee Rich complete the cast, along with Nate Sammut and Byron Wolffe who alternate as James and Kerry as young boys.

The play ends just before Kerry Packer’s death in 2005. In the final scenes, we finally see him offer some affection to James, whom he has savagely berated for the One.Tel fiasco. James, as we know, will go on to focus on casinos and openly acknowledge his mental health issues.

Packer & Sons is entertaining, and many on opening night clearly had a ball. But at the end of two and a half hours (including interval) you don’t feel that it has just told you anything you didn’t already know – and if you didn’t know the story you would probably have been confused at times. You certainly cringe at the toxic world in which the Packers pack their very powerful punch, but since the play doesn’t delve deeply beneath the biography it tells, you don’t feel much emotionally at what you’ve witnessed.

Packer & Sons plays at Belvoir Street Theatre until December 22


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