BWW Review: 39 DEGREES, VAULT Festival
Two 39-degree days, opposite sides of the world, same heat, different situation. On the 25th July 2019, record-breaking weather is strangling London in its grips; five months later, Australia is burning on New Year's Eve.
Kate Goodfellow writes a personal and deeply resonating play based on her experience of the Australian bushfires. Directed by Alistair Wilkinson, she tackles mental health, grief, the notion of "being okay", and coping with sharp wit and emotion.
The timelines interweave and the company uses some exceptionally vivid imagery to convey the devastation of the fires as well as London's scorching temperatures. The two, regrettably, somehow don't truly speak to one another. Goodfellow's script is imbued with a singular textual dichotomy between vernacular and poetic to match the two days.
Wilkinson's direction is dynamic and fast, scene changes are introduced by quick strobes that recall heat lightnings (as designed by Joseph Ed Thomas) and anticipate fleeting series of images. The unrelenting pace, however, is anchored down by the voiceovers and blackouts, which end up dragging slightly without immediate motive.
While these more sullen parts of the play theoretically fit into its grander scheme and strive to stop the development of the tale by giving a chance to fully absorb the havoc, their nature seems too divergent from the rest of the piece. This throws off the frantic and lyrical style of the Australian plot instead of acting as a backsplash, which is unfortunate more than anything.
The stillness of the drab London flat pops when compared to its counterpart, though, and Goodfellow's focus is able to shift easily to her inwardness. The reasons for her July state are only briefly mentioned and never dwelled on, which is a recurring instance in the show. Nevertheless, the playwright is exceptional at painting feelings through words.
Paired with Wilkinson's eye for detail and visual approach, the burn-out, subjective and external strifes, and doomlike fear are laid bare on the actresses. Their synergy is palpable, and even with Goodfellow's taking the lead and driving the action with secure purpose, Ruth Newbery-Payton gets to shine.
As a whole, it's not an unsuccessful first outing for 39 Degrees. Its intent and internal script dynamics might need a slight tinkering, but Goodfellow's writing is refined in its idiosyncratic elements and Wilkinson's take on the story is indisputably thrilling.