The Great Fire

Belvoir St Theatre, April 6


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The cast tries to nut out a way to make this undercooked play work. Peter Carroll (right) apart, they failed. Photo: Brett Boardman

Cunningly marketed as the season of goodwill, Christmas is more commonly the gala event on the family feud calendar. The joys of this have been depicted on stage before, notably in Jon Robin Baitz’s ruthlessly funny Other Desert Cities. Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire doesn’t hold a candle to that work, but it does boast a few gifts of its own as it depicts three generations of a family clustering together like so many barnacles, smiling outwardly and seething inwardly.

Brookman introduces his 10 characters gradually, so we grasp who’s who as they join the multi-directional internecine struggle at the family home built by Patrick (Geoff Morrell) and Judith (Genevieve Picot) in their idealistic hippy days. Alas the conflagration you feel brewing never erupts into more than a soapy comedy-drama in which selfish interests collide.

The quality cast has Sandy Gore, Genevieve Picot, Lynette Curran, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik, Eden Falk, Marcus McKenzie, Sarah Armanious and Shelly Lauman, with Peter Carroll’s hilarious depiction of the grandfather (sliding inexorably towards dementia) the show’s highlight.

Carroll apart, Brookman provides a smattering of laughs, a poignant moment or two, and plenty of amusingly recognisable patterns of behaviour. But when the play attempts to become more expansive the mechanics of the writing grind and clunk, and the characters speak too overtly for the playwright. Surely director Eamon Flack should have pressed for further rewrites until the areas of quicksand into which the story sinks periodically were eliminated; until the flashes of genuine wit were more widespread and consistent.

As it is the pettiness of most of the characters’ concerns – how do three grown-up children get a slice of mum and dad’s financial and real estate action, and emulate their career success? – are entirely upstaged by Carroll doing no more than falling asleep on the couch. With the metaphorical fire not rising above a flicker the consequence is that the breakdowns of emotions and a marriage ring hollow. Thankfully enough acting talent is present to salvage some entertainment.

Until May 8.