The Great Fire

Liam McLoughlin

The Great Fire could use more heat and light.
The Great Fire

Genevieve Picot (Judith), Marcus McKenzie (Tom), Eden Falk (Michael), Geoff Morrell (Patrick) and Peter Carroll (Donald) in The Great Fire; Photo by Brett Boardman.

Like Ivanov and The Blind Giant Is Dancing, Eamon Flack’s latest Belvoir directorial outing, The Great Fire, should be a scorching success. Like those previous works, the play combines blistering writing talent (Kit Brookman), a glowing ensemble cast, glimmering humour and the sizzling chemistry of the personal and political. Yet despite flickers of brilliance, the show never really burns bright (and no, this won’t be the last predictable but irresistible fire metaphor).

We watch as baby boomers Judith (Genevieve Picot) and Patrick (Geoff Morrell) return to the family home they built in the Adelaide Hills in the 1970s. They join eldest child Lily (Shelly Lauman) and her husband Michael (Eden Falk), who currently occupy the house, middle child Alex (Yalin Ozucelik) and his pregnant partner Hannah (Sarah Armanious), along with the youngest and most troubled child, Tom (Marcus McKenzie), reeling from a break-up and a depressing overseas escape. The kids’ grandparents, Mary (Lynette Curren) and Donald (Peter Carroll), round out the family reunification for the Christmas season.

What happens next? Not much. Tom feels depressed, Alex wants his inheritance now, Michael talks about himself a lot and Hannah is lovely. Parents debate moving back to Adelaide, kids feel like failures, and grandpa falls asleep. Debates about intergenerational wealth and climate change generate more heat than light, and two and a half hours of pretty uneventful interactions feels nearly as long as it sounds.

There are certainly incandescent moments. Peter Carroll is superb and hilarious as the befuddled grandpa. After a slow build-up, his first entry with wife Mary lights up the play. Yalin Ozucelik’s firebrand rant as Alex, denouncing the false dreams instilled in him by his parents, sparks a spontaneous round of applause and there’s silent poetry to the sparkler countdown to the New Year. Damien Cooper’s lighting design is a beautiful evocation of the many hues of the Australian countryside and Michael Hankin's set design helps evoke the bustling familiarity of Christmas.

Yet despite a bit of smoke, the play never properly catches fire. One or two performances feel wooden, emotional moments such as Tom’s breakdown in Alex’s arms fail to inflame the heart, and far from adding fuel to the fire, some of the political monologues act more like wet blankets. Often they sound like the writer’s opinions rather than organic thoughts from the play’s characters.

Like a camper on a winter’s night, I really wanted this to be a great fire. The fact that as Belvoir’s incoming Artistic Director, Eamon Flack has commissioned eight new Australian works this year alone is wonderful. That Australian writers are presenting audiences with urgent debates about climate change and intergenerational equity using familiar characters and voices is certainly to be commended. Future rewrites could see this play transform into a theatrical inferno giving off intense warmth and light.

For now, it’s a slow-burn which leaves things under-cooked.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Great Fire
By Kit Brookman
Director: Eamon Flack
Set Designer: Michael Hankin
Costume Designer: Jennifer Irwin
Lighting Designer: Damien Cooper
Composer and Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Cast: Sarah Armanious, Peter Carroll, Lynette Curren, Eden Falk, Sandy Gore, Shelly Lauman, Marcus McKenzie, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik and Genevieve Picot.

Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills
2 April – 8 May 2016

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is keen on satire, activism and the arts. He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from@situtheatre.