For Kurt adolescence is an inferno, a ticking bomb. For his sister Olga, it’s a mire, sucking at her ankles, paralysing her in a place between childhood and womanhood. Both feel penned in and pressed down and so they retreat into the heat of each other’s arms, each other’s beds. She leads the way, tugging at the drawstring of his tracksuit bottoms, guiding him towards her, but it is his latent energy that proves more volatile.
Written in 1997, Marius von Mayenburg’s play explores the effect this collision has on a middle-class German family. Even before Kurt starts to burn, the family is fragmented. A chill pervades. His mother freely discusses menstruation at the dinner table, or strips off to wash in front of her son. It’s normal, all normal, she tells him as Kurt curls in on himself in repulsion. “Being a mother isn’t enough for you, you want to be a woman as well,” he spits in return.
When Olga, a Lolita in pigtails – with a dash of Violet Elizabeth Bott – starts dating Paul, predominantly for his cool motorcycle, things intensify. The introspective, awkward Kurt turns arsonist, baby bomber. He is fascinated by fire, the idea of a cleansing flame-birth. One misjudged experiment with accelerants leaves him marked, scarred, sporting a fire-face of which he seems privately proud, yet even this fails to cool the burning urge in him, it just alienates him further.
Sam Pritchard, the recipient of this year’s JMK award, conveys this sense of emotional remove through the physical distancing of his cast from one another. When the family sit down to eat, he positions them in a line at the front of the stage, each facing out towards the audience; when the parents are in bed with one another, they are placed at opposite ends of the stage, sitting upright as they flip through the pages of the daily paper. This approach can at times feel too overt, but it is counter-balanced by a sly streak of comedy. Pritchard fully grasps the humour of von Mayenburg’s play and has fun drawing it out, tempering the intensity.
The cast emphasise this sense of distance, though their performances are more naturalistic than, say, the dead eyed teens in Simon Stephens’ Morning; it’s possible to catch a glimpse of warmth, a twitch of regret, in their expressions. In fact Rupert Simonian’s trajectory as Kurt is almost too gentle, he simmers rather than boils; Aimeé-Ffion Edwards’ pouting Olga is more forceful a presence, successfully conveying just how much of being a teenage girl is about attitude, a shell in which to seal yourself.
Amanda Stoodley’s rough, plywood design forms a kind of human shelving unit into which Olga and Kurt can slot themselves. This space is broken down further by lengths of red tape, which Kurt winds around the walls, cordoning off a corner for him and his sister as they stop engaging with the world, forming a crime scene to be.
But as the play becomes more extreme, as events spiral towards a predictably bleak conclusion and the gasoline goes sloshing across the stage, if anything the production loses momentum. It’s stronger when it’s depicting the complex tangle of family life, the teenage siblings caught in each other’s orbits, the parents’ awkwardly attempting to relate to them, their gestures well-intentioned but ultimately futile. David Annen and Helen Schlesinger as their fallible parents, are convincingly confused by the spite and bite of the children, alarmed but reluctant to do anything, ignoring the warnings of Olga’s boyfriend that Kurt should be locked up.
Fireface doesn’t have the satirical punch of von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One; it’s a blunter instrument, the territory over-familiar, and this is reflected in the production, which while always engaging never flames quite as fully as it might.