When people “ghost a party” they make an inconspicuous exit, hoping no one will notice. That’s how 87-year-old Grace would like to leave the world: subtly and quickly when she’s had enough. The problem is, her daughter and grand-daughter are blocking the way out.
Playwright Melissa Bubnic (Boys Will Be Boys, Beached) does not cower from difficult, confronting subject matter, and in her new play Ghosting The Party she tackles the scariest subject of all – death. The story focuses on three women, three generations of a family. Grace (Belinda Giblin) is the cantankerous, acid-tongued matriarch who is grinding reluctantly towards the end of her ninth decade on Earth and just wants to call it quits. Her daughter, Dorothy (Jillian O’Dowd) is 56, divorced, working full time as a teacher, disillusioned with life but hanging on to a self-help styled optimism. Suzie (Amy Hack) is Dorothy’s daughter and Grace’s grand-daughter. She is 34, single, working in a high pressure marketing job in Canada trying to convince herself she is living the dream.
The play begins with a sort of prologue in which the three women, standing apart and in dressing gowns, exchange thoughts on what might be the best way to die. The first scene opens proper with the women all dressed in black having just been to the funeral of Grace’s sister. The topic of death and quality of life continues, becoming more earnest and bordering on macabre as Suzie and Grace start discussing suicide.
Hack, O’Dowd, and Giblin... work seamlessly together like a chamber music trio
Suzie is being wickedly facetious, knowing it is making Dorothy squirm. Grace’s sardonic humour is more ambiguous; is she being serious about contemplating suicide? It doesn’t take long for that question to be answered, and after a genuine if clumsy attempt, Grace convinces Dorothy and Suzie that she is not only serious but determined.
Suzie by now has returned to Canada and we get a glimpse into her world through work-related cocktail parties and vitriolic chit-chat with her dour mentor, Rita (O’Dowd). She lives in a cloud of pretence, accepting a work promotion with near-despondence. She is childless by choice, much to her mother’s chagrin. Dorothy, meanwhile, is suddenly seized with the fear of facing the future – with all its potential illness and frailty – alone. In one of the most comical scenes in the play, we find Dorothy on a date with Eric (Giblin in hilarious drag) whom she met online and who looks nothing like his profile. Hack plays an awkward waitress in this scene and her well-observed caricature is a delightful visual gag.
The play is unflinching and can sometimes be uncomfortable, not only in its discussions of death, suicide, ageing and illness, but also in the frequent loud, vicious arguments. However, every harsh note is soothed and softened by a hilarious one-liner. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. We also come to understand that the apparent antipathy within each daughter-mother relationship really germinates from love. They want each other to be happy, they fear loss, they are angry at themselves for their perceived failures.
Director Andrea James has created great synergy with Hack, O’Dowd, and Giblin. They work seamlessly together like a chamber music trio, alternating counterpoint and harmony, coming in and out of the melody on cue.
Hack has an athletic physicality to her performance (unsurprising as she is also a dancer). She gestures broadly and emits a lot of emotional energy. O’Dowd arguably has the most complex character, being both daughter and mother and acting as a sort of pivot in the narrative. She is naturally likeable and her character evinces empathy. Giblin, truly an Australian jewel, is the absolute star here. She has rock-solid confidence, excellent delivery and an aura that can only be attained through experience and dedication to craft.
As ever, Griffin Theatre Company uses ingenuity in working with the small space at the Stables Theatre. Designer Isabel Hudson has created a static set that has been pasted over - floor and walls - in a garish, floral wallpaper. Apart from a retro armchair, curtains and incidental props, there isn’t much more, and there doesn’t need to be.
This is a surprisingly enjoyable play with belly-laughs and lots of warmth. However, it would be remiss not to temper that endorsement with a warning that the content is confronting, especially for anyone who has gone through or is going through similar circumstances.
In a sign of the times, Ghosting the Party's season was shifted (from May-June 11, to May 20-June 18) due to several of the play’s creative team being impacted by the unwelcome effects of Covid. And in an in a fortuitous turn of events, the first preview was rescheduled to May 20, the day after the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was passed through NSW Parliament.
Ghosting The Party plays SBW Stables Theatre until June 18. Grab your tickets here, or be gravely disappointed.