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Ghosting the Party

"Bubnic is a brilliant writer of hilariously caustic speech"

Audrey review: A bitingly funny, brazen and clear-eyed take on the things that keep us on this side of the veil - and why one might choose to pass through it.

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Ghosting the Party

Date: 26 May 2022

Melissa Bubnic’s short, sharp, pitch-black comedy about checking out early was itself late to check in.

The 2017 winner of the Lysicrates Prize, Ghosting the Party was delayed not once but twice thanks to Covid-19, its season truncated by two weeks. Bubnic flew all the way from London for its original opening night. She was gone again before the actual one.

Some faint silver lining might be found in the fact that the postponements allowed the play to open in a state which had, just a few days before, allowed the terminally ill the right to take their own life. New South Wales is the last state in Australia to pass laws of this kind.

Eighty-six-year-old Grace (Belinda Giblin) speculates how she would go about it. “You’d want your eyes closed,” her granddaughter Suzie (Amy Hack) advises.

Grace nods. “I worry if they’re open and the rigor mortis is so far advanced that your eyes are too stiff to close and your lids break off in some paramedic’s hands.”

The woman in the in-between generation, Dorothy (Jillian O’Dowd), both coddling mother and needy daughter, doesn’t like to hear that kind of talk. She sees it as enabling suicide. And, more pertinently, a personal insult from an emotionally withholding parent, the only one remaining – and the one who never held back from remarking about her weight, or her divorced husband’s chin (“A complete absence of chin! It’s just teeth sitting on a neck!”), or anything else, for that matter.

Suzie, who does her best to extract herself from the family drama in her new home of Montreal, where she is a rather tetchy powersuited businesswoman, is happy to play Grim Reaper’s advocate for her grandmother. But neither she nor Dorothy take Grace seriously. They hear her complaints as those of a cantankerous old woman, easily dismissed, not a rational person in serious pain who is still (but for how long?) of sound mind.

Bubnic is a brilliant writer of hilariously caustic speech. She deals it generously across the three generations of women, exploring the love, care, resentment and grievances that gather between them.

Few can deliver lines quite as acerbically or hilariously as Giblin. She may be known best for her TV soapies, but by god that woman (now in her seventies) is one of Sydney stage’s best right now.

Her Grace is irascible but, in her dogged assertion of her dignity, an implacable argument against the ageism in our society and the horrific dysfunction in our aged care institutions (which the Royal Commission’s findings have demanded redress). Giblin only briefly lets the audience glimpse the vastness of her character’s physical, mental and emotional suffering – but when she does, it is wretched and moving.

O’Dowd’s Dorothy – frizzy-haired and in dumpy woollen sweater – will be recognisable to all the mothers who don’t know how to give less, care less.

She busies herself about Isabel Hudson’s nanna-ish set – embroidered cushions, floral wallpaper, a hideous yellow leather armchair, dinner trays and lace curtains – as determinedly bright as Grace and Suzie are determinedly moody.

I suppose any daughter will recognise to some extent (and with enormous, unvanquishable guilt) the surliness Hack exudes. The three of them form a poignant triangle of female relations in a family still learning how to talk to each other.

In between these dialogue-driven scenes, there are less convincing homilies and philosophical quotes on death and dying delivered by the actors as a kind of spiritual chorus on the corners of the Stable’s triangular stage.

I googled “I shall leap from a building that is crumbling and tottering” – and apparently, it’s from Seneca, the Stoic who calmly committed suicide under Nero’s orders, the emperor having suspected him to be involved in a treasonous plot.

Another line (which was inserted at such a strange juncture I honestly understood not one word at the time) – “worms feed on Hector brave and Hector weak the same” – is a quote from the Thomas Nashe poem, A Litany in Time of Plague.

Without context, these pulled lofty references by long-dead European men seem like unnecessary, melodramatic and slightly insecure adornments to a story which can absolutely carry its own message without them.

A secondary plotline involving a symbolic career matricide by Suzie in Canada also doesn’t balance entirely well with the real familial drama happening on the other side of the world. There seemed more to the three women’s attitudes towards euthenasia to explore here, too. When the play does travel into these loaded questions of ethics and mortality, it is at its finest.

Spiritedly directed by Griffin Theatre’s Associate Artist Andrea James, and elevated by the superb Giblin, this debut production of Ghosting the Party is often bitingly funny, brazen and clear-eyed in its take on the things that keep us on this side of the veil, and why one would choose to pass through it.

It makes me excited for what Bubnic will bring next.

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