By Sam O’Sullivan. Ensemble Theatre. Director Mark Kilmurry. 9 December, 2022 – 15 January, 202
Reviewed : 9 December, 2022*
“It’s Sydney. It’s Boxing Day. And it’s stinking hot. Grandad Stephen was the BBQ King and his adult children have gathered to honour his memory …”
Family traditions often outlive their raison d’etre. Sometimes it’s better just to let them go! But Peter is determined to honour his father’s legacy despite the heat, a bush fire burning not far away and the apparent indifference of the rest of the family.
The stage is set for a million possibilities and playwright Sam O’Sullivan makes judicious decisions about which to choose. In doing so he creates characters we get to know intimately, and a family where superficial bonhomie covers simmering bitterness and hidden hopes and decisions.
The style? Basically, realism with some comedy, some drama, some introspection, just a tiny bit of moralising … and a delightful touch of the absurd. It’s a crafty mix and O’Sullivan does it very cleverly.
In crediting the director Mark Kilmurry and cast in his writer’s notes – “The journey that this play has taken me on, with Mark and a wonderful cast of actors by my side, has been fascinating and joyful” – O’Sullivan highlights the significance of artistic collaboration in the theatre.
Kilmurry has nurtured that collaborative ‘vibe’ in his direction. It’s there in the authenticity of the characters. They feel like a family. They’re used to uncomfortable silences and brewing resentments that eventually boil over – and react accordingly. It’s there in the subsequent empathy that his cast establishes with the audience.
And it’s there in the continuity between the stage and technical designers and operators. Matt Cox (lighting) and David Grigg (sound) link the scenes effectively – and entertainingly – with particularly “Boxing Day” moments that O’Sullivan has built into the script. Towards the end of the play, those moments are linked guilefully to the plot.
Brian Meegan plays Peter, determined to carry on the tradition despite the apathy of the others. Peter is a successful small businessman, a wine snob. He and his second wife Val work together. Meegan makes him confident, seemingly in charge, but a bit touchy, especially when he finds out his daughter Jennifer has signed up to work as an unpaid volunteer for a year.
Val is played by Aileen Huynh, who makes the most of Val’s different opinions and pushy bossiness. She relishes Val’s directness, her ability to control the family ‘action’ – and the irritating imperiousness that O’Sullivan has written into this character.
That directness is not appreciated by Jennifer, played with careful nonchalance by Harriet Gordon-Anderson. As daughter and niece, Jennifer is loving, understanding but her indifference to her step-mother is shown silently, in disbelieving expressions. Gordon-Anderson is often a quiet presence on the stage, but she watches, and listens – and the audience is acutely aware of her every reaction.
Danielle Carter plays her aunt, Connie, who is has strong, well-founded opinions about politics, climate change, social issues – usually the opposite to Val’s. This makes for some interesting banter – and comic moments. Carter brings verisimilitude to this role. She finds the different dimensions of the character, especially in her understanding relationship with her husband, Morris, despite their separation.
Morris is played by Jamie Oxenbould, who delights the audience with his interpretation of this gauche, easily influenced but very gentle character. Oxenbould shows the frailty of this character in hesitance – hesitant entrances, hesitant responses, hesitant exits – except when worrying about his bees who have ‘absconded’ from their hive.
Those bees add philosophical layers to the plot – and the “touch of the absurd” that takes this play beyond realism. O’Sullivan is a clever writer who knows how effective a creative twist can be.
Boxing Day BBQ is an interesting play, skilfully written and deftly directed. Its characters are real, tangible. The plot is multi-layered and very carefully developed.
What a great way the Ensemble has chosen to end 2022! A play that could become an Australian classic and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol that cleverly combines two literary classics – and both playing over the holiday season!