We often go to the theatre for a dose of fantasy. It can be escapism that we seek, or a quest for inspiration, and it often becomes easy to conceive of fantasy as a thing severed from our daily lives. In fact, no fantasy can truly thrive without some root in reality. Campion Decent’s Unholy Ghosts is mostly autobiographical. It deals with family and death – probably the most universal of all concepts to tackle, and yet the most difficult to articulate. Through art and the guise of theatrical fantasy, Decent enacts a way to analyse, heal and mourn the deep inevitable losses one experiences in life.
Family ties are uniquely challenging. Some of us are gifted more pleasant circumstances than others, but we all understand the unyielding nature of those bonds. Regardless of time and distance, only a very few can truly claim to have made clean cuts from their closest blood relations. We all know what family can make us feel, and it is that intensity of love (and hate) that makes Unholy Ghosts immutable and its effects inescapable. Decent’s writing is humorous but gentle, with a sublime melancholy that appeals to the tenderest of our sentiments. Its thorough honesty is also quite confrontational. We cannot resist empathising, which means that we cannot help but reflect upon the ones we hold dear, and the invisible yet persistently lingering notion of death that threatens and surrounds us.
The characters are named in the programme simply as Son, Mother and Father, and the script provides what seems to be factual information about their lives and defining events through the years, including the tragic passing of the unseen Daughter. It is this compilation of Decent’s recollections, as well as his invented scenarios, that offer insight, or at least some kind of understanding of how pain can be tamed and the living can move on. The play’s structure is hugely enjoyable – the confusion between fact and fiction, laughter and tears, victims and wrongdoers, creates a complexity that is undeniably resonant in its familiarity.
Direction is provided by Kim Hardwick, who does an excellent job of locating comedy and pathos in every moment, and allowing them to co-exist in an unusual harmony. Liberal amounts of dark humour pervades the stage, but there is also a surprising compassion that always makes its presence felt. We see resentment, anger and bitterness in the family members, but their conflicts only exist for a love that requires resolution. The intimacy of the space gives the audience easy access to the people on stage, and their terrific chemistry keeps us spellbound. Hardwick has achieved the remarkable feat of crafting a show where we fall for all of its characters at first sight. Unholy Ghosts is unashamedly sentimental, but it is also thoughtful. Strong emotions surface towards the conclusion, but not of the wallowing type. The play keeps a level head, always maintaining a level of self-examination, which makes the sadness much more profound.
James Lugton plays the Son, a version of the playwright himself. Lugton’s emotional fortitude is a great asset to the production, for he offers us the depth of suffering a person can endure without a need for predictable and obvious gesturing. The strength he portrays is so genuine and pronounced that it conveys the sorrow that he cannot reveal. The more he strives to keep a positive outlook, the more we hurt. It is a confident performance that deceives us with its relaxed nonchalance – the opposite of melodrama, with results more affecting. There are moments, however, where the actor seems to lose focus and trips over his lines, causing one to wonder if certain sections are less rehearsed. Also periodically distracted is Robert Alexander who plays Father, but like Lugton, his lapses are negligible. Alexander’s work is colourful, and the miserly man he depicts is charmingly comical and unexpectedly likable. The accuracy at which he performs the role of the “regular older man”, is brilliantly reminiscent of the literal and figurative fathers of our lives, complete with annoying quirks and disappointing imperfections. There are actors who win us over even before their first scene finishes, and Alexander is a shining example. His charisma is magical, and partnered with a clear affection for the stage, his creation is one that endears and impresses.
Mother is a creature of flamboyance and mischief, who buys her son the Bette Midler book, A View From A Broad for his sixteenth birthday. The divine Anna Volska is electrifying. Her work ranges from outlandish and grotesque, to delicate and introspective. It is a tremendous role, and the actor fulfills every brief and requirement. Volska delivers many instances of sheer hilarity, but the delicious poignancy she invokes at every appearance is unforgettable.
Visual design (Martin Kinnane) is minimal and unobtrusive. No great flair is showcased, but nothing feels lacking. Sound design (Michael Huxley) assists well with mood changes but several keyboard interludes are slightly too conspicuous and outmoded. In the final scene, lighting makes a drastic transformation to accompany the uplifting end. The choice to shift tone so extravagantly is questionable. It is clear that optimism and the celebration of life is a key message, but stating the case so literally may not be necessary. Also unnecessary is the compulsion to release the audience in such upbeat fashion.
The play’s happy ending, however, is solid and convincing. Whether exuberant or subdued, we understand the spiritual and psychological journey that Decent has taken, and we appreciate the position of enlightenment he presents. Life ends and relationships end, and it is their brief temporality that gives them value. We only wish for something to last forever when we know that its end approaches. It is tempting to declare that nothing is eternal, but the fact is that art can outlive us, and great writing endures for generations. How splendid the thought that ghosts can prevail, if the artist’s life is well lived.