Review By Anja Bless
Showing as part of Sydney Festival, in association with Q Theatre, Slow Burn is an autobiographical work by storyteller Deborah Pollard. This one-woman show, currently on at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, explores the tales of love and loss that precede, accompany, and follow a major natural disaster. A poignant reminder in the age of COVID-19 that Black Summer and the havoc that was wreaked are not long behind us, Pollard shares how her own family lost their home in the 2003 Canberra bushfires.
As a fellow Canberran, and having also lived through the terror of those 2003 bushfires as a child, this work pulled at a few more heartstrings than expected. Pollard deftly captures the unique nature of Canberra, a ‘city for country folk’, and the heart of modern living in Australia through the end of the 20th century. Pollard tours us through Canberra’s unique architecture, many roundabouts, and quaint family-friendly attractions. Painting a wholesome picture of the bush capital that rings true for those who have lived and visited there, and not afraid to poke fun at the nation’s capital on occasion either. The catastrophic and unprecedented ferocity of the 2003 bushfires are shown in stark contrast to this lightness; the shock and bewilderment of the locals, the terror as suburb after suburb is named at risk, the toll of all that was lost. Pollard shares intimate family recordings, tales of the day the fire struck and when the Pollard family lost their childhood home. This depth of emotion, the fragility, and sense of honesty can only be achieved through an autobiographical work such as this. As an audience member you feel privileged to hear the tale, told in the way the survivors want to tell it.
But Slow Burn isn’t just about the Canberra bushfires. It is a story of the lives of the Pollard family, namely Eris Pollard, the father. How a country boy from Yass moved to the ‘big smoke’ with his young family and built a life there. Only to have it robbed through an unavoidable catastrophe, and his health not long afterwards. Pollard’s performance is of a daughter working through grief, but also cherishing the memories of father loved and lost. Her impersonations of her father and other family members often drew chuckles from the audience, the stage sparingly set and centred around her father’s ‘favourite armchair’.
Pollard keeps the audience enraptured, weaving deftly through light and shade in her tale. She uses song to tie the story together, although the opening number was perhaps a little drawn out. A moment of audience participation was also unnecessary, not adding to the story or the performance. The sound design by Phil Downing and lighting by Benjamin Turner helped move Pollard through her storytelling. A powerpoint slideshow is used as the backdrop, both to bring laughter, and for moments of deep solemnity.
Whether you have experienced bushfires or not, Slow Burn is one to watch. All can relate to the joys and trials of families, memories, love, and loss. Far from self-absorbed, Pollard’s devised piece is autobiography and performance at its finest. Don’t miss it this Sydney Festival.