BIAF 23: Burnt Out

Caolan Byrne, Kerri Quinn and Terence Keeley in 'Burnt Out'. Photo: Carrie Davenport

A forceful, dynamic and very effective exercise in turbulent and intricate characterisation, Gary Mitchell's Burnt Out, directed by Jimmy Fay and staged at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, is a play where potential bursting within the seams of the first act transcends into highly laudable audience reward for the second, giving off that welcome Belfast International Arts Festival vibe of a strong opener. It succeeds mainly as a powerful and darkly funny presentation of aspirational individual and communal lifestyles which are realities only for as long as they are allowed to be - a relentlessly knotty and rather grim situational comedy where foundational bonding is threatened with permanent damage amidst sudden and chaotic happenstance. In short, it's Frasier-esque, but with less emphasis on the farce and more on the cutting edge - given its timing, you might consider it a gloomier cousin for the recently rebooted popular sitcom.

Not that Michael (Terence Keeley) or Cheryl (Kerri Quinn) would probably wish to align themselves with even the most lovable nuttiness which frequently descended upon the Crane family in the nineties. Instead, their way of life, which already features good jobs, a cat and a dog (not Frasier's Eddie!), appears to be defined by a desire for calm cleanliness. Their longing is beautifully encapsulated in the starkly arresting set design, a pristinely polished dwelling with all the look and feel of a welcoming residence but a very different heart and soul.

Interjected between scenes are projections of visual and melodic craziness from the back of the theatre, successfully echoing a brief instability that often threatens a comforting existence. It also inspires a recollection of younger uncertainty, lack of identity and incompleteness, which Michael and Cheryl are visibly looking to leave behind. There is a perception of condescension from both, locals in voice and upbringing more than class and status - the very class and status that will prove tough to maintain once Michael's brother Donny (Caolan Byrne) informs them that a giant bonfire is being built in the field facing their house.

Shannen McNeice and Caroline Curran in 'Burnt Out'. Photo: Carrie Davenport

It's like a troubling turning point and a fascinating broadening of awareness for both the characters and the audience. The arrival of Donny and Lesley (Shannen McNeice) brings more energy to an already edgy and promising piece of work. Their presence, and the pivotal performance of a restrained but no less effective Caroline Curran as the law enforcement figure at the middle of it all, sparks off – no wordplay intended, promise – escalation from barely concealed tranquil frustration towards a furious vitality, played impressively by both Terence Keeley and Kerri Quinn. They get the pressure of projecting a contextual backbone without being able to live up to its demands at the most pressurising of times. Michael's, Cheryl's, Donny's and Lesley's is the quandary of being the focal point as groups, couples or individuals from multiple angles, presenting the boldness and trouble of the confrontational mindset. This is where an appropriately vigorous Caolan Byrne and Shannen McNeice really shine, with the latter doing really arresting work for her Lyric Main Stage debut. It is Lesley's determination not to be looked down upon that compellingly plays off the social and hierarchical chaos around her.

Burnt Out isn't just about the bonfire that may or may not be burning outside, but the emotive fires that consistently burn within, each of which are accordingly measured out amongst the characters. It's a mood piece where tension infiltrates points-of-view prior to rising conflict, where anything can actually happen. Where it is not appearance that matters, but morality and responsibility. Where the fine line between the spanner-in-the-works as chance or intervention is explored. Where you've been on a journey with, as a certain Dr Crane might say, tossed around lads and ladies, and scrambled up eggheads, who may have feared that the blues would be calling but weren't necessarily ready to face them. And are we really ready, ever?

Simon Fallaha

Burnt Out opened the Belfast International Arts Festival 2023 and runs at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday November 4. For more information, and tickets, click here.