“This isn’t her place” (or words to that effect) reads the neon sign above the bed, the focal point of the set for Ms Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, which recently began its Griffin Theatre Company season at the SBW Stables Theatre (ye olde Nimrod), Nimrod Street, Kings Cross. It’s one of the wittier nuances of this luminous production, directed by Shannon Murphy and designed by Rita Carmody.
There’s a couple in the bed as we enter the tiny space. They’ve had a big night. The restless, persistent male finally coerces the female to partake in a brief mating ritual. The girl, Ellen, played by Belinda Bromilow, is anxious to leave. As we learn, she’s new to Sydney, overwhelmed by the city and its ‘rules’, and still gripped, if not consumed, by grief, following the sudden loss of her beloved father two years earlier. The guy (one of several love interests, or disinterests, played by Nathan Lovejoy), Brian, apparently somewhat her junior and also new to Sydney, is an awkward dork, who seems to believe every silence should be filled, no matter how inanely. His heart seems to be roughly in the right place, but she escapes as soon as he turns around.
She’s making something of a habit of these one-night stands, which follow, predictably enough, hot on the heels of a bender. She’s unhappy in her marketing job, has no friends and is haunted by the ghost of her dad, also Brian, portrayed by Tony Llewellyn-Jones, who’s come back to stay with her, in her studio apartment, where they listen to cricket, just like the old days.
Bodie has created a romcom, albeit of tragic proportions, which has screenplay written all over it. It has such heart, finesse, sincerity and truth, one assumes it must have a firm footing in reality; at least one foot. But, in the end, whether or not it does is immaterial, since it plays like it does. The metaphors are sophisticated, pointed and accessible. The divets of the chopped-up pitch we see after interval references the undertaker’s art; The Ashes parallels the biblical habit of smearing oneself with such. It’s deeply poetic, with a diction that’s neither ornate nor oblique, but direct, precise and subtle.
The shiny, whoring city of Sydney comes in for a friendly roasting: Ellen speaks of people walking the streets looking self-satisfied; smug water views; she even belittles the sacred Opera House as bathroom-tiled. Sydney is too much for Ellen, still overwhelmed, hit for six, by Brian’s passing. She throws herself into meaningless affairs, if the can be called that, almost drowning in an anesthetic sea of alcohol. But, while she might’ve expected the self-centred abuse she cops from one of the ships in her reckless, choppy nights, she doesn’t count on the intrinsic decency and caring of Adam, who remembers her, from two years ago, even if she can’t do better, at first, than ‘you do look familiar’. In Adam, at last, she finds relationship, last experienced before her father’s untimely death. Adam is her salvation.
There are rhythms and cadences here which elevate it well above being just a sweet, but never cloying or false, love story; even if that might’ve been enough. It’s downright musical. Intensely sad; affectionate; funny; tragic. And real. It’s artful; not artificial. Natural; not forced. It even manages to float notions of rape and incest, without ever addressing them. As both a piece of writing, and a piece of theatre, it’s unbeatable. Finely-tuned, by being finally attuned to the hearts and minds of contemporary twenty and 30-somethings. Even when it threatens, here and there, to succumb to cliches, Biblical allusions, or lapse into a Friday night rerun of Bridget Jones, it’s rescued by a delicate hand.
Script. Cast. Crew. All that glitters isn’t gold, but this sparkles and comes close to being a treasure.
The details: This Year’s Ashes plays the SBW Stables Theatre until November 19. Tickets on the venue website.