Shane Warne: The Musical

He may have retired from the game, but a musical about Warnie's colourful life puts the notorious cricketer back in the limelight. Kathy Marks reports

Shane Warne, as nearly everyone knows, is one of the greatest cricketers in history. He is also, famously, an inveterate philanderer. But a subject for a musical? Just when "Warnie" thought it was safe to go out in public again, the legendary spin bowler, who retired last year, finds himself back in the headlines. Not for his performance on the pitch, nor his indiscretions between the sheets, but as portrayed by Eddie Perfect, an award-winning Australian singer, comedian and cabaret artist.

It was Perfect who had the idea of bringing Warne's tumultuous life to the stage. He first mentioned it to his manager, Michael Lynch, as a joke. After a while, the idea didn't seem so wacky. Shane Warne: The Musical opens at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne this week.

The show, which Perfect wrote and stars in, features 24 songs inspired by jazz and funk, soul, gospel, opera and heavy metal. "What an SMS I'm In" recalls the steamy text messages that Warne sent to various women, with one of them landing, by mistake, in the phone of his ex-wife, Simone Callahan. "Take the Pill" is a sly reference to a banned weight-loss drug that Warne claimed his mother gave him, and which earned him a one-year suspension. It is such incidents, and more – including Warne's involvement with an illegal Indian bookmaker, recounted in a Bollywood-style number – that furnish rich material for Perfect.

"Shane Warne is an amazing subject, because he has all the epic story-telling elements running through his life," Perfect told The Independent, while on the way to a final rehearsal. "There's success and failure, shame and redemption, love and loss, beautiful women and exotic locations, hair loss and giant dancing cigarettes." (Warne, whose smoking was another source of controversy during his career, once endorsed a hair-loss remedy.) Perfect adds: "There's a Truman Show quality to his life, as if he's been thrown on to the set of his own story and doesn't really know his lines."

Perhaps appropriately, then, in the musical it is Warne who narrates the story – a tale of "Wagnerian" highs and lows, says Perfect. Among the highs is the 1993 Ashes series, when he bowls the "Ball of the Century" – also known as "That Ball" – to dismiss an astonished Mike Gatting, the former England captain. Among the lows, Warne is stripped of the Australian vice-captaincy in 2000 after bombarding an English nurse, Donna Wright, with text messages.

It is this "duality" that Perfect believes explains Australians' fascination with Warne, along with their well-documented obsession with sport generally. "He is a person that every Australian has an opinion about, whether they love him or hate him," says the musical's creator. "He divides people. Here is this incredibly gifted guy who bowls with such grace and beauty, like it's never been done before, but off the field his life is a shambolic disaster."

It would have been easy just to lampoon Warne; instead, Perfect – who grew up in a Melbourne suburb near Warne's – embarked on a quest for the man behind the headlines. What he found was a surprisingly sympathetic person. The musical turned into a homage to 39-year-old Warne, although not, Perfect insists, a hagiography.

"I find him incredibly impressive, and I admire the fact that he's had to answer his critics on the cricket pitch. Every time people wanted to write him off, he went out there and literally played for his life. Under that kind of pressure, most people would crumble; Shane Warne not only delivered the goods, but he revelled in it.

"At the same time, I think his is a very human story and everyone can identify with it. I think the relationship between Shane and Simone is absolutely beautiful, and no different from how most couples meet and fall in love and get married." (Simone, with whom Warne has three children, and who is played by Rosemarie Harris in the musical, divorced him in 2006.)

Despite Perfect declaring that he is "fairly firmly in the Warne camp", the cricketer himself is not impressed by the prospect of Shane Warne: The Musical – not surprisingly, since he has already endured no fewer than 13 unauthorised biographies. He said recently: "I just think it shouldn't be allowed. You should have permission off anyone to write about their life – that should be the law." Warne, who took more than 1,000 international wickets during his 15-year career, said that friends had seen previews and warned him to expect "good parts and bad parts". He admitted: "I'm a pretty easy target for a few cheap jokes, but I brought some of that on myself."

The show has been eagerly awaited here. A rough cut aired at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival last year garnered glowing reviews; leading theatre companies competed to produce it, and there is already talk of taking it to London. First, though, it will move to Sydney and Perth after Melbourne.

Three years in the making, the musical "sets out both to celebrate and understand the life of cricket's most adored and maligned hero as he battles fame, failure, fidelity and the ferocious Australian media," according to the promoters. They are hoping to recreate the success of a musical about the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, in which Perfect also had a major role. The two shows have the same director, Neil Armfield, while Mike McLeish, who played Keating, has two roles in the new musical: Michael Slater, Warne's team-mate, and Daryll Cullinan, a South African batsman who reportedly sought therapy in an effort to overcome Warne's psychological domination of him.

In an effort to get inside Warne's head, Perfect read every book about him, and even acquired his blond, spiky mop. He has not, however, met him, and muses about the possibility of bumping into the cricketer in a Melbourne bar and "having to explain myself".

Perfect says: "The musical is about him, but it's also about us, how we view ourselves as reflected through Shane Warne's story. I think he's pretty straightforward. He loves cricket, loves people, loves his family, loves food and loves his mates. There's not much subtext."

According to some accounts, Warne is enjoying his retirement; according to others, he yearns to return to the Australian team. Whether the musical helps or hinders his efforts to rehabilitate his reputation remains to be seen. Perfect believes that Warne would enjoy watching it, and has invited him to the premiere. The cricketer has not yet RSVP-ed.

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