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Burnt Out review: In Gary Mitchell’s new play, the destructive past resurfaces in the blink of an eye

Belfast International Arts Festival 2023: Dark deeds offset by cartoony humour have been a Mitchell trademark. It’s not as potent a combination here

Burnt Out

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

It’s the perfect storm. You discard your working-class roots, ascend the social ladder and concoct a new image in a different social environment. Then, in the blink of an eye, the past resurfaces, bringing with it the destruction of the whole house of cards. In the political context of Belfast’s fragmented loyalist communities, such a situation can precipitate unimaginably alarming repercussions.

If the most effective drama can be judged to thrive on doubt, dissent and division, Gary Mitchell’s new play could find no more fertile a seeding ground than among these very communities. Drawing on the violence and intimidation he suffered from loyalist paramilitary gangs infuriated by his unflinching portraits of the world in which he grew up, Mitchell weaves his long-awaited return to the stage around an aspirational young Protestant couple.

Sweet-natured Michael (Terence Keeley) is an ambitious primary-school teacher; his glamorous wife, Cheryl (Kerri Quinn), is the proprietor of a successful hair salon. They have recently moved into a new house, along with their dog and cat – which will prove to be distractingly integral to the storyline. Michael feels that all they need now is a baby to complete the picture. But Cheryl has no wish to sully her pristine home with dirty nappies and night feeds.

Barely has the dust settled on that issue than their cosy lifestyle is upended by the arrival of Michael’s brother Donny (Caolán Byrne), who, with undisguised relish, announces that one of the contentious July bonfires is being built opposite their house. Mystifyingly, they have not noticed. Donny is a man with connections, entrusted to be the go-between, to keep a lid on any opposition and warn off complaints to the police.


With his bulky physical presence and violent tendencies, Byrne’s Donny registers as both unsettlingly comedic and predatory, prone to venting his frustrations on his trashy girlfriend, Lesley (Shannen McNeice). His sleazy attraction to Cheryl is unreciprocated, adding to his resentment of Michael as their mother’s favourite, a late child whose siblings were required to work in order to fund his university education.

Riled by Cheryl’s defiant behaviour and under instructions from their faceless godfathers, the young hoods guarding the bonfire embark on an escalating series of attacks, the worst of which should be seen to make considerably greater impact on the two protagonists. Dark deeds are offset by cartoony humour, as the couple become ludicrously fixated on their pets and the self-important investigating officer PC McGoldrick (Caroline Curran) repeatedly makes matters worse. This combination has been a potent trademark of Mitchell’s narrative style, but this time around it does not weigh in with the same intensity.

Jimmy Fay’s film-noir-inspired direction is enhanced by Conor Murphy’s cool, monochrome design concept, on to which is projected a jumble of outsized, distorted, Hitchcock-style flashes, echoing the characters’ inner turmoil. Garth McConaghie’s immersive soundscape acts as a road map, tracing a path through the mounting jeopardy. The final showdown cranks up the hysteria to boiling point, only for order to be swiftly restored, to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Continues at the Lyric Theatre, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival, until Saturday, November 4th

Jane Coyle

Jane Coyle is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture