SBW Stables Theatre, August 29
Campion Decent’s touching autobiographical play Unholy Ghosts “tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss” as he writes in his program notes.
Effectively putting his own parents on stage, it’s no wonder he creates such vivid characters in this heartfelt yet funny three-hander in which a man known only as Son (James Lugton) tells us about the loss of his warring mother and father to cancer within seven months of each other.
Hovering beneath this is the shadow of his sister, who died 12 years ago, whose loss he still keenly feels.
Decent has the Son act as both narrator and player as he guides us from scene to scene and the emotional roller-coaster that he finds himself on.
The product of a dysfunctional family, the Son is a playwright in his 40s who lives with his male partner and their two children.
His mother (Anna Volska) is a former star of stage and radio who gave up her career for her children and has resented it ever since but whose life is still one big, grand performance. Drily witty, she smokes and drinks ferociously despite cancer riddling her body and applies lipstick liberally – even for her last rites, which is both funny and sad.
His father (Robert Alexander) is a cantankerous old grouch who has little sympathy with his son’s sexuality (describing homosexuals as “your lot”) or career choice.
There’s no love lost between the divorced pair and their Son finds himself caught in the middle as he visits them both during their illness, keen to ask questions about his parents’ damaging treatment of him as a child.
Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a parent or someone close will find aspects of the play to relate to. The mother’s description of her frail flesh literally coming apart at the seams hit home hard for me.
All three performers are excellent. Volska, who hasn’t been on stage for around a decade, brings precision timing and a compelling mix of diva-like manipulation and charm to the role of the mother. It’s wonderful to see her back in the theatre.
Alexander is very touching as the father who wants to express regret in his dying days but must struggle to find a way, while Lugton gives a winning, truthful performance as a man torn between love and frustration, irritation and hurt, relief and fear of coming adrift.
Produced by White Box Theatre as part of Griffin Independent, Kim Hardwick directs the production with a light, understated touch and a lack of sentimentality, even as recrimination slides into redemption.
Coming toward the end, a fantasy scene set in heaven therefore feels out of place. The final scene in which the Son realises with euphoria that the family he now has is the one he has chosen – partner, children and friends – also sits slightly oddly after what has gone before but sends the audience out on a warm, fuzzy note.
On opening night I felt that the play didn’t build quite as strongly emotionally as it doubtless will (navigating the jumps between narration and scenes perhaps?) – but others apparently sobbed.
Unholy Ghosts is a lovely, heartfelt play. Decent’s script has a zing about it with big laughs as well as tears. One sentence rang out, and has echoed in my mind ever since: “We all know our parents teach us how to live, or not to live, but, of course, I realise now they also teach us how to die.”
Unholy Ghosts is at the SBW Stables Theatre until September 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817