The decline of a loved one is difficult under the best of circumstances, and it’s harder still to explain to a child. In The Holidays, now playing at Queensland Theatre, Bob Holiday (Bryan Probets) and his wife, Summer (Louise Brehmer), are grappling with this issue and attempting to protect their son, Oliver (Matthew Ianna), from the reality of his grandfather’s condition.
David Megarrity’s play follows the family holiday at their beach house – Bob’s childhood home – which is a thinly veiled excuse for Bob to visit his father, who has been severely affected by a stroke. The beach house is filled with sand, as is the stage. The house carries with it the sound of the tides coming in and out. Shhhhhhhhhh, it calls – sometimes a whisper, sometimes a roar.
The first time he breaks the fourth wall, Oliver encourages the audience to make this sound with him – shhhhhhhhhh – and for a few seconds the theatre transforms itself into a facsimile of the beach. It’s not surprising that the play returns again and again to the beach; it is, after all, a place of inexorable push and pull, of endings and new beginnings.
Bob is often gruff and short with his son, his behaviour demonstrative of the social pressure on men to be stoic in the face of grief, especially in the presence of other men. But there are subtle progressions in this father–son relationship – we learn they are both fond of dad jokes and wordplay, at one point amending the chorus of Australian Crawl’s “Reckless” together so the lyrics discuss bacon and breakfast. This scene ends with Bob’s abrupt exit, punctuated by stark lighting and sharp sound – in contrast with the shhhhhhhhhh of the rolling waves.
Bridget Boyle’s production combines sound and visual imagery to great effect; Nathan Sibthorpe’s projections flash along the back of the stage, bringing the audience into different settings – the hospital parking lot and the fish and chip shop, among others – without changing Sarah Winter’s set. The projections allow us to see the patterns Oliver draws in the sand, bring us into Oliver’s room and allow us access to the photos on Summer’s phone. These images are useful in revealing the characters’ interiorities – the story of family is often also the story of the things we keep from one another.
Bob is reluctant to let Oliver in, but Oliver is here for a reason – otherwise, he’d be at his Aunt Jan’s, as on previous visits. Eventually, Bob allows his son to come with him to visit his father, and ultimately Oliver facilitates a breakthrough between the two older men.
Wordplay looms large in The Holidays, mainly through the dad (and mum) jokes peppered throughout the play. Most of them land, but some seem overwrought. There is an entire scene devoted to discussing names for the sole purpose of revealing Summer’s maiden name, Long – meaning she could have been Summer Long-Holiday, if she’d chosen to hyphenate her name after she married.
These jokes background the wordplay in the story’s main motifs. In one scene, Oliver traces an outline of himself in the sand, but his figure is missing its left hand. “Let me lend you a hand,” he says, chuckling to himself, as he draws a replacement. The hand motif reappears when Oliver holds his grandfather’s hand, and when Bob and his father clasp hands – the first sign of recognition between father and son in a long time.
The Holidays is an ambitious story of intergenerational connection, thick with metaphor and symbolism. As well as the motifs of the hand and the beach, the spiral is a repeated visual symbol. The play weaves in references to classic Australian music, ideas about the impermanence of memory and physical objects, mortality and the value of art.
It feels as though it’s trying to do a little too much in 80 minutes, which means that some of these strands are not fully developed. Despite this, it’s a moving story of love and loss, of the ties that bind family together through even the darkest times.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 28, 2020 as "Sons, sand and surf".
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