Boxing Day BBQ

11 Dec

Sam O’Sullivan’s Boxing Day BBQ is a fun take on some serious fracture lines in our society. Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the cast deliver comic magic.  

The BBQ is a family tradition. It was grandpa’s baby, but he and g-ma are gone, so now the younger generation(s) skate the hot plate. The gathering throws together the usual mix of ill-fitting pieces that make up the insolvable jigsaw that is family. (Comedy plus tragedy equals family; though this play is definitely comedy – the tragedy lies offstage, in the reality this comedy gives us the courage to acknowledge.)  

The new self-appointed patriarch, Peter, proudly wields the BBQ mate, finding what scant meaning he can from the upholding of banalities. Brian Meegan wonderfully captures Peter’s mix of unthinking privilege and dismayed emptiness. His daughter, Jennifer (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), is about to volunteer a year of her life as part of the crew of the Sea Bandit (a riff on the environmental activists’ Sea Shepherd.) Peter is horrified. His new wife, Val (Aileen Huynh) is not much of an ally, not because she agrees with Jennifer, but because intellectually she has vacated the field. (More on this below.) O’Sullivan gives Val one liners of beautiful vacuity, which Huynh plays to perfection. Peter’s sister Connie (Danielle Carter) is also at the do, an intelligent, articulate woman navigating both her brother’s obtuseness and her ex-husband’s gentle but futile longing. Jamie Oxenbould as Morris, her ex-husband, delivers a brilliant performance, heart-warming and full of pathos.    

Those fracture lines I began with? O’Sullivan’s play is a musing on objectivity versus subjectivity, and the collapse of these two categories into one in contemporary discourse. This is presented partly through discussions of perception; Peter is a wine merchant who takes for granted the notoriously slippery language of taste descriptors. But it is mainly explored through the characterisation of Val, who consistently avoids the tough issues by asserting the mantra of the lightweight Right: you have to question everything. This is, of course, never the radical and universal doubt of Descartes, but rather the selective use of ignorance to shore up privilege. (In the play, some characters are correct and others are not, and we’re invited to laugh at the inflexibility of the latter, and we do – but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t slightly disconcerting to find myself so easily enjoying the mockery of those who endorse intellectual humility, even when they don’t practise it.)

The play also explores change versus continuity, questioning the value of tradition. We’re told about the monkey step ladder experiment, in which five caged primates are sprayed with icy water if one attempts to climb a certain step ladder. Place a banana at the top of that ladder, replace some of the monkeys, and those remaining familiar with the spraying will police the others – inadvertently ensuring the banana is wasted. Val laughs at this experiment as an example of the absurdity of much that purports to be science but, of course, the story functions as a fable. Mechanical adherence to convention limits our ability to think outside the cage, leaving a lot of bananas wasted – or one planet, as is the case for us as we refuse the changes that might avert environmental disaster. (But traditions and conventions can also have value; they’re a type of cultural capital. One such tradition is that social tensions can be profitably explored through the dramatic trope that posits disparate characters and places them in an inescapable situation like a family Boxing Day BBQ – though O’Sullivan does disrupts this convention, offering the spoonful of honey of some magical realism to ease our acceptance of radical change.)

Finally, the play also offers itself as a representation of generational conflict. In the real war between the generations, the ultimate outcome is dully predictable; all that’s of interest is whether – this time – anything will be learnt from the vanquished before they forever quit the field. But this is comedy, and Boxing Day BBQ is a merry war, a playful paean to reconciliation and hope.

Paul Gilchrist

Boxing Day BBQ by Sam O’Sullivan

Ensemble until 15 Jan

Image by Prudence Upton

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