For actors and playwrights alike, there is nowhere to hide on the intimate stage of the SBW Stables Theatre. The audience, thrust so close to the action, cannot be fooled by flashy sets or clever
lighting cues. Instead, theatregoers demand honest storytelling where every plot twist, every slice of dialogue and every performance – right down to the slightest smirk on an actor’s face – rings true.
Unholy Ghosts, the latest offering from White Box Theatre and Griffin Independent, is a charming and darkly funny play that lays bare the struggles of dealing with ailing parents. Campion Decent’s semi-autobiographical work, written in the wake of his mother and father’s death, tempers nostalgia with vicious wisecracking to create an intensely personal tale with universal appeal.
James Lugton anchors this story as the son, a sharp playwright who recounts his chequered upbringing with equal parts fondness and spite. “Damage” is a family specialty, he explains, directly addressing the audience. His father (Robert Alexander) sees the importance of a pair of well-polished boots but fails to accept his son’s sexuality and career choices.
The son’s relationship with his mother (Anna Volska), a former darling of the radio and stage, is equally troubled. No matter how many coats of bright lipstick she paints on, the words that fly from her mouth are not always pleasant.
The news that both parents have contracted terminal cancer is a bleak revelation but thanks to director Kim Hardwick’s delicate touch, the production maintains a delightful warmth and humour. This is aided by the pitch-perfect performances from all three actors.
Lugton speaks Decent’s finely-crafted words as if they are his own, and his description of the body’s eventual decay is particularly stirring. Volska is tremendous; flighty, flirty and always chasing a laugh, even when she is swallowed up in bandages. Her character treats her cancer diagnosis head on with a healthy dose of white wine and a carton of cigarettes, just like her mother before her.
Alexander matches Volska with dignified restraint, and his imposing presence is inescapable, even when he is watching off-stage from his armchair.
There were audible sniffles in the theatre, and assuming spring pollen wasn’t to blame, the play’s poignancy and candour struck a chord with the audience.
The son’s grandiose declaration about the importance of new family connections, accompanied by a cascade of bubbles across the stage, is a somewhats incongruent end to an otherwise satisfying 90 minutes of theatre.
Unholy Ghost plays until September 20. Bookings 02 9361 3817 or at the SBW Stables Theatre.