Boxing Day comes early to The Roxy

September 10, 2012

Boxing Day by Phil SpencerDo you remember the first time you complained, “I hate Christmas?” If you’ve ever said it, can you pinpoint precisely when the build-up and family politics began to give you mild panic attacks? At the very least, carol fatigue syndrome?

Chances are you weren’t 10 years old. When you’re 10, you’re still in love with the day itself (as well as counting down the days leading up to it). You’ve started to suspect that Santa Claus isn’t really the red-suited sky ranger that you once thought, and realised that there are undeniable logistical problems with flying reindeer, pixies and elves. You may vaguely comprehend that the magic isn’t in the man who comes down the chimney – it’s in the spirit of togetherness. But you’re still stubbornly clinging to the childish certainty that on the 25th of December, nobody fights, nothing goes wrong, and everyone is happy.

For 10-year old Freya (an effervescent Holly Austin), her dad’s casual announcement that he may spend Christmas working on an offshore oil rig is devastating. It steels her determination that the limited number of days they do have together be extra perfect.

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Freya’s family is fractured — her mother has recently passed away, her widowed Nan is sweet but totally out of tune with the needs of a young girl, and her best friend Poppy is just a tad unadventurous. Life gets pretty boring in the Tasmanian seaside town of Rainwood for Freya — it’s no wonder Christmas is a big deal. But then her Dad and Nan start fighting, and a body washes up on the shore.

Phil Spencer has written a script so rich in character and plots that you’re hooked from the get go. The play, part mystery and part coming-of-age tale, cleverly mixes comedy and drama. There are too many laugh-out-loud moments to mention, sitting alongside moments so excruciatingly uncomfortable it’s as though the walls are closing in on you.

Director Scarlett McGlynn has secured strong performances from a strong cast: AFI Award-winner Annie Byron (Sydney Theatre Company’s Hedda Gabler) switches flawlessly between playing Freya’s 9-year-old best friend and 70-year-old grandmother, and Alan Flower (Rake,All Saints, Home and Away) creates the kind of tension you could cut with a knife. But the true star of the show is Austin, a former student of French clown-master Pierre Byland. Her portrayal of the 10-year-old Freya is the perfect balance of cheeky liveliness. All three of the performers are captivating to watch.

Boxing Day is a dramatic play, with clowning elements, with comedic moments – but this isn’t a comedy in the light entertainment sense -there is nothing flippant or flighty or feel-good about this play. It’s more than that. It is weightier, meatier, more solid than that. In any of the high points in life where there is tragedy, comedy is also present which is very true of Boxing Day. It will have you sitting on the edge of your seat.

Spencer’s script strikes a beautiful balance.  It’s the way he handles the sound of words that makes his writing special. It’s not of the stilted, jarring interchanges that are popular in new theatre writing. There is something natural, something transparent and yet something poetic.

Director Scarlett McGlynn has given a dream cast room to move and breathe and feel and be in this play. She has set the conditions for play and playfulness – for authentic interchange. How can we not want more for them all? How can we not want to see what happens next? The challenge for a director of new work is to serve the play, serve the story to the audience without getting in the way.  Here it is handled with great evenness, generosity and consistency.

It’s a tender parable not to forget the ones we love, and not to forget to show them we are there.  It’s everything a good night out should be – entertaining, funny, poignant, moving and fun.