REVIEW: GHOST MACHINE (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Bianca Michelle

The Anxious Ghost

As the audience enters the Basement theatre there is an anxious ghost waiting for us. It flaps its ectoplasmic limbs about and counts the people attending with neurotic urgency. Apparently even the dead need to worry about ticket sales. In fact, as we’re about to discover, this luminescent spectre is a bit nervy about a lot of things and its fretful energy is going to power the next sixty minutes of this high concept stand-up.

The ghost is Australian comedian Laura Davis. It’s just a costume, she tells us, not a character. More people will probably come and see a comedy show starring a phantasm than a woman, she reasons, and this one has been her most successful yet, performed for six years now, so maybe she’s got a point. Identity is a theme here and the very fact she’s wound up concealing hers for so long seems to concern her, though to be fair so do a lot of things. Whatever the case, the ghost is relevant to the content of the show in a number of ways, a neat focus for Davis’ twitchy ramble.

As Davis herself acknowledges, GHOST MACHINE neither starts nor ends big. Nor does it really follow a single train of thought. Instead she pings back and forth between certain ideas, drawing connections between the cosmic and the mundane. A recurring topic is the nature of our corporeal state. We understand we’re all just collections of countless tiny atoms, yet what do we do with this incredible comprehension of the nature of our existence? Sort forks, apparently, says Davis, shifting into a discussion of her dreary day job. We are ghosts in a sense, collections of mysterious particles drifting about performing tasks the meaning of which has long since been lost, at least to us.

It clearly worries Davis. So do science and religion both of which seem to offer up frightening insights into the world, whether it be the discovery of a whole new organ we didn’t know existed until 2018 or the fact some people need the fear of hell to convince them to not be total monsters. Davis flicks about between these topics, seemingly nursing a very real and overwhelming anxiety about them. She speaks quickly and urgently, frequently checks the time to make sure she’s not running over (she hasn’t done the show in a while, she explains) and when some inebriated ladies in the front row try to interject just keeps talking, too caught up in her own spiel to notice.

Yet she’s also entirely amiable and very funny in her existential angst. This isn’t some freak out over the unknowables of the universe, but a search for what comforts us and keeps us going in this mysterious and disturbing reality we inhabit. She asks us what our guilty pleasures are and why we haven’t killed ourselves (a section that you can’t help but feel has the potential to go badly wrong). What is it that’s keeping us going? The answers are predictably a bit pat. Maybe some performances yield responses that are a bit more revelatory, but they didn’t at the show I attended and Davis isn’t really looking to guide us any deeper into the topic. She basically wants to get across that life is nice and worth taking a crack at but it’s only a glancing bit of positivity, not really all that persuasive. Then again, nothing in GHOST MACHINE feels like it’s trying too hard to convince us of anything. It’s content to be more a stream of consciousness than a line of argument.

Toward the end Davis sheds her costume and the content turns a little more personal and a little less frenetic. Even if the ghost is just something she wears it seems she’s relieved to dispense with the mask and deal with us a little more directly and it’s here that her existential musings start to become more candid. It makes a nice cap to her point that there must be something a bit more to us than the jumble of cells that constitute our physical forms. But again she’s not interested in some grandstanding point about our nature. She’d just like us to know she’s been thinking about it and is entirely relaxed, for once, about what we take from it. It’s a gentle conclusion to a highly strung yet assured show. 

GHOST MACHINE plays Basement Theatre 23-27th February, 2021. 

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