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Published 5 October 2012

Puberty is unpleasant. All those hormones flying around like tiny winged monkeys intent on causing mayhem. The testing transition of being not quite adult, not quite child. The need for control but lack of responsibility. It is the embarrassingly spotty no man’s land of life’s journey.

In Marius von Mayenburg’s Fireface, Olga and her brother Kurt are both caught in this developmental hinterland; she railing against the vulgarity of birth and childhood, he refusing to become the type of adult he recognises in his parents, who have settled into a non-communicative, rarely physical relationship. He wants thrills, excitement and control of his life, and he finds it amid the smoke and flames of arson.

That, sadly, is not the most distressing of Kurt’s problems. He’s having classically pubescent urges and the only young female in his life is his sister. You see where we’re going here.

Staged in the Young Vic’s worryingly wood-clad Clare theatre and performed on what I’m sure is the most flammable of chipboard sets, looking a little like the inside of an Ikea storage unit, director Sam Pritchard has captured the sense of isolation, naivety, panic, anger, frustration, arrogance and vulnerability that comes with puberty.

Rupert Simonian as Kurt switches from classic protective sibling, staring down his sister’s boyfriend, to sinister horror villain gazing out from under frowning eyebrows, while Aimeé-Ffion Edwards’ little girl voice belies the swiftly maturing Olga. There are rare moments of familial connection, but with meal times spent staring out into the auditorium, bedtime spent staring out into the auditorium, conversations spent staring I think you know where, Pritchard makes sure we recognise the dislocation as if it were our own shoulders knocked out of their sockets.

It’s all quite jarring, what with Helen Schlesinger’s Mother – her character, not a relative – flannelling herself off, hands disappearing down trousers and William Postlethwaite getting angry and naked – well, you would if your only set of clothes had just been torched, wouldn’t you? – but I suspect it is supposed to be.

Puberty isn’t fun. Certainly not in this household. Though Kurt takes it to horror-movie extremes, most of us know exactly where this twisted firestarter – to quote a song of my own teenage years – is coming from.


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