Written by Sam O’Sullivan. World Premiere. Ensemble Theatre. Dec 5, 2022 – Jan 15, 2023
All shows should be this good. Boxing Day BBQ may look like a light, festive comedy from the outside, but once you pop the hood you’ll find a tight family drama that is finely tooled and smarter than it needs to be – this is A grade theatre disguised as a broad comedy.
After the passing of his father, Peter (Brian Meegan) is determined to keep the family traditions alive, including their Boxing Day BBQ. Together with his soon-to-be divorced sister Connie (Danielle Carter), his daughter Jennifer (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), his current wife Val (Aileen Huynh) and the unexpected appearance of Connie’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Maurice (Jamie Oxenbould), Peter puts up his best fight against the fiery winds of change blowing in their direction.
Writer Sam O’Sullivan and director Mark Kilmurry have pulled off a wonderful Christmas miracle, giving us a domestic drama with a lot to say that never preaches, stuffed full of comedic moments that grow from character rather than contrivance. O’Sullivan’s script sets up jokes beautifully which Kilmurry’s direction gently taps over the line with calm confidence.
There is an air of grief that fuels the characters (all the best Xmas tales are really sad stories at heart). The loss of Peter and Connie’s father is forcing a realisation of mortality on them both and they move in different directions. Liberal-leaning Connie is dealing with existential dread at the state of the world. While right-leading Peter tries to keep things as they are despite being unprepared. Jen is stuck between the rock of low-paying graduate jobs and the hard place of sky-rocketing rents – what kind of future is she looking toward? Bubbling Maurice works tirelessly to bring bees back to his backyard beehive. If he can save one bee, maybe he can save his marriage? And Val blithely spouts conspiracy theories while never investing in any of them – all truth is up for grabs. The whole family is one glass of wine away from fracturing.
The intransitory nature of a generation of older white men is carefully unwrapped and compassionately examined – this isn’t a bland hatchet job but a character study. O’Sullivan’s strength here is his eye for character. Peter isn’t a two-dimensional “boomer asshole”. No-one in Boxing Day BBQ is a cypher, they each have interior lives that drive their choices. Even Val, moon-landing-denying-flat-earther Val, has a grounded authenticity to her – she just wants the day to be perfect for her husband and can’t understand why the others won’t shut up and give him this one simple thing.
I can’t single out any cast members because they’re all perfectly well placed. I knew Meegan and Gordon-Anderson had chemistry after seeing them both in American Ulster earlier in the year, and Huynh was a stand out in Ensemble’s The One a few months ago. Carter and Oxenbould have a beautifully unorthodox chemistry; you can really believe they’d been married for years. Oxenbould probably pulls off the most multifaceted performance of the night as Maurice could easily veer into parody, but instead he’s kept real by the yearning that drives his actions.
The more I think about the play, the more I find. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to pour over the script and pull it apart to see how it all works. Which is probably making this sound like a duller show than it is – it’s funny! The audience was letting out constant ripples of laughter and recognition. The evolving jokes about backyard bees keep growing to deliver one of the funniest moments I’ve seen all year.
Boxing Day BBQ is unpretentiously perfect. There’s no gimmick or celebrity allure here, it’s just so effortlessly good it makes other shows look bad in comparison. I didn’t expect my last theatre trip of the year to be this good, but Ensemble has handed us a great theatrical Christmas present. It makes me more excited for 2023’s offering.
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