Review: The Great Fire (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 2 – May 8, 2016
Playwright: Kit Brookman
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Sarah Armanious, Peter Carroll, Lynette Curran, Eden Falk, Sandy Gore, Shelly Lauman, Marcus McKenzie, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik, Genevieve Picot
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
For many people, having children is considered natural and something that does not require questioning. In Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire, we see the complications that arise, not when toddlers are misbehaving, but when children become adults and their struggles can no longer be quelled by their parents. Judith and Patrick are affluent Australians of the baby boomer generation, with a strong marriage and three grown children. The couple is in their 60s and is beginning to contemplate their autumn years. Unlike their own parents, Judith and Patrick do not have the luxury of only considering their own needs. Their children might be adults, but they are not yet financially independent.

The Great Fire is about one family’s woes, but also an experience shared by many. For what seems to be the first time in human history, apron strings have become hard to sever. With the aggressive growth of capitalism occurring at the same time as baby boomers having children, much of the world has now evolved into a new economy where the chasm between the haves and have-nots is larger than ever. Judith and Patrick never foresaw that their offspring would find it hard to make a living, and certainly never expected their retirement plans to include their children’s well-being, but the current state of the world is no longer offering the same opportunities. The younger generation is brought up in the image of their parents, and they find themselves lost in this new social system, where no one is guaranteed an income, and where building careers is a privilege increasingly out of reach.

The story is not an easy one to articulate. We are perhaps too close and too new to its concepts, and unable to see the forest for the trees. Brookman’s script contains many ideas, observations and philosophies, all relevant to contemporary life, and even though it is admirable that the work feels uncompromised, it is not always focused enough for dramatics to work effectively. The plot is long and meandering, often with enjoyable moments but also overly complicated and overladen by details. Nevertheless, characters and their narratives are authentic, and we recognise their individual challenges easily and intimately. Direction by Eamon Flack brings attention to the wider social aspects of the family drama. We are not left indulging in bourgeois pettiness, but are asked to consider the play’s bigger contexts, which affect us all. The Great Fire takes its time to get to the point, but the poignancy at its end is deeply satisfying.

Production design is accomplished with quiet elegance, and Michael Hankin’s set is undeniably beautiful. Sound and lights are gently executed, making their presence felt without drawing undue attention. There is excellent chemistry in performances that makes us believe in the play’s complex family dynamics. Genevieve Picot brings a warm and organic instinct to her portrayal of Judith, while Peter Carroll and Yalin Ozucelik leave strong impressions in their powerful and prominent stage moments. It is not a simple piece to communicate, but the actors convince us of its core messages.

The characters in The Great Fire do not live in poverty, but their struggles are real. Like most of us, they have obligations that need to be met, but resources always seem to lag behind. We may have learned life lessons from our parents, but we do not always realise that the skills they had acquired for their lives may no longer be sufficient for dealing with ours. When we bring children into the world, optimism can overwhelm and blind us from the cold face of reality, and how much protection a parent can afford seems always to be a difficult question. The pursuit of prosperity is linked to what our planet can give. There is no end to how much we want, but the planet is finite, and we feel very close to that limit.