Burnt Out: play draws attention to lingering sectarian tension

Burnt Out. Lyric Theatre, Belfast. © Carrie DAVENPORT

Burnt Out: play draws attention to lingering sectarian tension
11 October 2023

Theatre-goers were gripped by playwright Gary Mitchell’s latest show Burnt Out playing at the Lyric Theatre. Directed by Jimmy Fay, Burnt Out is a psychological thriller and dark comedy that explores sectarian tension in modern-day Belfast. A sophisticated production complete with high-quality audio/visual effects and complex characters, Burnt Out leaves audiences at the edge of their seats, anticipating the unfolding drama. 

On the main stage of the Lyric, the play follows the story of Cheryl and Michael, a married couple in the midst of marital and domestic bliss, in the weeks leading up to the eleventh of July. Cheryl (Kerri Quinn) owns a hair salon and Michael (Terence Keeley) is a primary school teacher on summer holiday. They share a beautiful home with their pets and an optimistic outlook on their future. However, unbeknownst to Cheryl and Michael, their idyllic, suburban utopia is under threat.

It is revealed that Cheryl and Michael’s home is next to a field in which a bonfire is being built. Michael’s brother, Donny (Caolan Byrne) informs the couple that neighbours suspect they have filed a formal complaint about the bonfire to the police. Despite Cheryl and Michael’s denial of the accusation, Donny and his girlfriend Lesley (Shannen McNeice) pressure the couple to ease tensions with the bonfire-goers and avoid working with law enforcement. 

Caolan Byrne, Kerri Quinn and Terence Keeley. Burnt Out. Lyric Theatre, Belfast. © Carrie DAVENPORT

Escalating activity at the bonfire begins to agitate Cheryl and Michael, who cannot find their cat and are often kept up at night by the commotion. They become increasingly paranoid as Donny and Lesley, claiming to serve as liaisons for bonfire attendees, continue to meddle in the growing tension. Meanwhile, PSNI officer P.C. McGoldrick (Caroline Curran) regularly calls on Cheryl and Michael to investigate neighbourhood incidents. 

Shannen McNeice and Caroline Curran. Burnt Out. Lyric Theatre, Belfast. © Carrie DAVENPORT

The building pressure eventually escalates into a car explosion, Cheryl’s salon being graffitied, and violence as Cheryl and Michael also cope with conflict between each other under the stress of the situation. Torn between attempting to quell the drama on their own, as recommended by Donny and Lesley, and involving the often-callous PSNI, the increasingly desperate couple watch the life they built for themselves begin to crumble under the strain of unresolved Northern Ireland community tension. 

Terence Keeley and Kerri Quinn. Burnt Out. Lyric Theatre, Belfast. © Carrie DAVENPORT

Laced with dark humour, Burnt Out exposes how lingering sectarian conflict manifests in the current day. While many other theatrical productions focused on Northern Ireland’s conflict are set in the past, Burnt Out is unique in its presentation of community tension in the modern era. Lesley vocalises her open disdain towards law enforcement, reflecting a pre-Good Friday Agreement conflicted sentiment about the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), carried forward to present-day attitudes of some to the reformed agency of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). 

Mitchell’s play also unveils the nature by which political conflict can become deeply personal. Donny, who is jealous of Michael and his domestic idyll, grows increasingly aggressive and confrontational towards his brother and sister-in-law as the tension builds. His true feelings and intentions are eventually laid bare, and it is clear that the political and personal are irrevocably intertwined, further confounding the potential of peaceful resolution. 

A tense and thought-provoking exposé of contemporary sectarian conflict in Northern Irish suburban life, Burnt Out inspires reflection on the fragility and limits of peace and what must be done to strengthen and protect it. 

Burnt Out runs at the Lyric Theatre until 4 November 2023. 

Content warning from the Lyric Theatre: This production has strong or offensive language / scenes of violence / flashing images or strobe lighting / smoke or haze effects / reference to rape or sexual violence.

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