Review: Fire Below: A War Of Words

I look at Owen McCafferty's Fire Below: A War Of Words, directed by Jimmy Fay, and I see, as Neil Hannon might, and actually once did, put it, unspeakable vulgarity, institutionalised mediocrity, (somewhat) infinite tragedy, elegance against ignorance, and difference against indifference. That's a lot of themes for a one-hour, no interval play, and it's impressive, masterful even, that Fay, McCafferty and a terrific cast relay them so convincingly in the guise of a broadly funny and deceptively stereotypical setting.

Fire Below is more than the obvious crowd-pleaser that its numerous laughs, off-kilter dancing and surface tensions would lead you to believe. It is The Search For Spock, if not quite The Wrath Of Khan, to The Weir's Motion Picture, its stars trekking (sorry!) with lively pace rather than stodgy ponderousness through an indisputably concept-heavy script with legitimately effective storytelling. I've believed, for years, that "comfort food" theatre or cinema can resonate unexpectedly, and Fire Below does just that.

Sparked off by the off-stage strains of what sounds like Mozart's Requiem (a bittersweet elegy for the fading influence of the baby boomers we will see on stage, maybe?), Rosemary (Cara Kelly) urges her husband Gerry (Frankie McCafferty), to be "liberating". To take initiative. But he won't budge. The conversation turns to a bonfire lit in the distance, and then to wine, and then to religion, all around a barbeque on Rosemary and Gerry's deck in their garden. Soon, the middle-class Catholic couple will be greeted by their equally middle-class Protestant neighbours Tom (Ruairi Conaghan), Maggie (Ali White), more fiery personalities, more drink, and an unwinnable but relentlessly intriguing "war of words" near the "fire below".

The stage is set for a frankly tired retread of tongue-in-cheek political and religious debates, Giving Our Heads Peace Across The Barricades, if you will. But subsequent contemplation reveals a boldness within, an intelligent, universal exploration and dissection of class and society. No, Fire Below is not David Lynch, but it's still rather frightening, in that there is nothing particularly staggering about the couples' dysfunctionality. It's commonplace. And it's very well-fashioned by the cast, especially the impressive Cara Kelly and the frankly superb Ali White, both transcendent in their energy and emotion alongside the more dry Ruairi Conaghan and more comic Frankie McCafferty.

Having exhausted ideas which their descendants came to accept as "part of the furniture", to take for granted, the couples are left with little to do but relax, pontificate and drink. More troubling are their supposed pontifications, like Gerry not wanting to look after flowers: a reflection on present-day, work-obsessed suburbanites, one middle-class not that different from another.

A literal reflection, actually, as Paula McCafferty's striking set has the cast act out in front of a large mirror, and beneath a series of multi-coloured lanterns which hint at a longing to escape for something more cosmopolitan, free of western capitalist shackles. Something which may never be fulfilled. The flickering flame at the barbeque, meanwhile, symbolises dying influence, while the raging bonfire further ahead continues to roar with life. It is, as I – or Neil Hannon, rather – noted earlier, a series of personality clashes mired in indifference and, surely, quietly fearful of tragedy.

This quartet, neither slobs nor snobs, but rather a bit of both on each side, are left to fiddle among themselves while the fire, or worse, the world, burns, because they really feel they have no choice. Genuine release is fleeting and positive plans may well be unfulfilled. It would seem that religion, politics and gender are less relevant, overall, than the critique and satire of apathy and frivolity, for which the middle-class "heroes" in Fire Below, a remarkable play in many ways, seem destined to pay the price. Who'd have thought something so momentarily humorous could be this retrospectively devastating?

Simon Fallaha

Fire Below (A War Of Words) runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday October 28. For more information go to

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