Family is responsible for a lot of things. Trauma. Ego. Kicks up the bum to sort through your childhood bedroom – which is how Ben McCarthy found a dusty university script of Sunday Roast. Written in 2009 by New Zealand comedian Thomas Sainsbury, the play follows a foster child’s integration with the family Giles, each member plagued with one of seven deadly sins, over a meal that unites them – well, tries to.
“The thing I found really interesting about reading it in 2023 was that all these issues he’s writing about are pretty much the same issues that we have now but they’ve all gotten worse,” says McCarthy.
McCarthy shares the stage with fellow 16th Street Actors Studio graduate, and Home and Away alum, Courtney Ally Miller. The thought of playing all eight characters wasn't a deterrent to the pair – it was a catalyst. “I’m certainly used to living in the world of big, crazy characters, and in improv we change characters a lot because you just have to do whatever the show needs,” McCarthy says.
“Courtney is an excellent dramatic actor. What do they say, ‘Drama is serious but comedy you have to be very serious’? People find her so funny because she knows how to just become a character.”
In her first play Miller portrays three archetypes “turned up to 200%”. There's overbearing mother Leanne, squabbling daughter Courtney, and wildly sexual granddaughter Tamsin. Meanwhile McCarthy takes on five – laidback father Phillip, depressive son Anthony, foster child Rupert, squabbling daughter 2.0 Diane, and pretentious son-in-law Francois.
Creative consultant Fabio Motta workshopped how the characters would interact and therefore who’d be assigned who. “[He] gave our bodies ideas around how our weight distribution should be high on our toes, where our hands should be, what part of our body are we speaking with,” Miller says. With a “black box of a stage”, unchanging costuming and two prop chairs, the theatrical style is “all we wanted because the playfulness and the shifting of the characters was enough”.
McCarthy adds: “There are times towards the end where we are literally jumping from spot to spot because all characters are on stage. Otherwise we’re using clever little tricks to go from scene to scene even if it’s just a twirl and then you’re someone else or if you exit and then immediately enter as someone else.
“It escalates very beautifully; it’s two-person scenes and then it becomes three or four and then there are all eight – which is manic... gets us all sweaty.”
But before all that, entering spectators are greeted with a blank canvas. “There’s no predetermined feeling at all. We have a bit of music but otherwise it’s like anything could happen,” McCarthy says.
“And it does,” Miller adds. “It shocks them.”
Shock like when I asked the duo if their real families have influenced the show. McCarthy recalls a trip to Jamaica where Bob Marley’s grave was the site of his 88-year-old grandmother’s first foray with marijuana. “I bought a joint off this man on the street and the tour guide saw me holding the joint and was like ‘Light it up man, light it up’ because there were candles all around his dead body. And I was like ‘You want me to light it up on the candles?!’ and the guy was like ‘It’s Bob Marley!’” And, well, the whole family got involved."
While Miller says theatre should elicit surprise, McCarthy says Sunday Roast is “so recognisable” for audiences. Miller says: “[The Giles] try to get on but deep down they’re just too different. They keep trying to force themselves to love each other or to like each other. Maybe you don’t like each other and that’s OK.” But remember, McCarthy laughs: “once that dinner bell rings, you better sit in your seat, you better enjoy your food and chat nice!”
Sunday Roast, Fool's Paradise, until 17 March