Kevin John Byrne was many things: a house painter, a soldier, a Catholic, a truck driver, a joker, a father of five, and a die-hard Port Adelaide Football Club supporter. But for a such a life well-lived, he considered a lack of Greek mythology his greatness weakness, “his Achilles’ elbow”.
Many more dad jokes decorate The True Story of Dad, which recounts the life story of presenter Matt Byrne’s father, Kevin. Originally envisioned as a eulogy, and later a memoir, the show comes off as an intimate This-Is-Your-Life-style tribute, with Byrne reading open book, surrounded by footy scarf-adorned tables of family photos and other trinkets.
Beginning with Slim Dusty’s ‘A Pub With No Beer’, Byrne weaves topical song references with anecdotes from his father’s life in chronological fashion. Born in Sutherlands in South Australia’s Mid North, Kevin was one of five children to Irish parents, losing his father early to typhoid that spread through the town. His regional 1920s upbringing lent itself to an appreciation of simple pleasures, including radio programs (‘the theatre of the mind’, as he would put it) and sport. This latter delight became evident through numerous football-themed stories of a dedicated Collingwood and Port Power fan not shy of heated arguments with opposition supporters, with Byrne quoting his father, “there are two kinds of people: those who barrack for Port, and those who wish they did.”
Over the course of the show, a picture of a kind, quiet-achieving man is revealed. Byrne proudly acknowledges his father’s World War II Army training in Victoria, with subsequent posting at Woodside Barracks. A later section of tales is dedicated to describing the average weekend – fish and chips on a Friday night (like any good Catholic family), shopping on Saturday mornings and footy matches in the afternoon, and visits to relatives on Sundays – finishing with Kevin’s departure for the working week to the Mid and Far North to support his family.
“Dad was a gentle man whose greatest achievement was his family. He was so happy that we all had a house of our own.”– Matt Byrne
Further humorous stories abound, including ongoing skirmishes involving backyard fruit trees and possums, and attempts to escape the nursing home in his late nineties.
Spoken and sung in a fitting broad Australian accent, Byrne’s delivery of his father’s story comes from a place of deep love and admiration. Towards the end of the work, Byrne reveals that Kevin gave him an incomplete autobiography that was dedicated to him, a clear indication of the mutual affection and care he had for his son and wider family. The result of this is a natural and genuine tenderness in the retelling of a fascinating life story.
Whereas many Fringe shows seek to impress audiences with involved tech setups or high levels of skill in particular art forms, Byrne succeeds here in conveying an honest, funny, and engaging account of his late father’s life. The occasional technical issue aside, The True Story Of Dad is an endearing completion of Kevin John Byrne’s biography, dedicated to and lovingly retold to us by his son.
Reviewed performance: 21 February 2020