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‘39 Degrees’ review – Australian bushfire experience told with searing emotion

★★★

Kate Goodfellow gives one of the most authentic and passionate performances I have seen in theatre in 39 Degrees, and that’s because the play is an autobiographical tale about her mental health and experience of the Australian bushfire crisis, making Goodfellow’s emotions real and striking.

Her despair is raw and scathing as she talks about the fires’ effect on wildlife and the actions of the country’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on climate change – including bring a piece of coal into Parliament. As the story flicks between two 39° days in London and Australia, Goodfellow’s monologues on the catastrophe are punchier than her dialogue with her friend in the UK (played by co-creator Ruth Newbery-Payton). Ruth captures the bubbly nature of a close friendship rather too flamboyantly, throwing her arms wide several times to ask ‘what’s on the agenda’. Their conversations lend themselves well to the more comedic moments of the play, chatting about mould and burnt food, but if talk of an ‘agenda’ is a subtle commentary on global warming not being at the forefront of national policy, then it’s rather on-the-nose – intentional or otherwise.

For most of the play, we spend our time in London, in a run-down flat designed by Chris Gibbs. Sure, it’s only a window with blinds and a mattress on the floor, but there is still a sense of space in Vault’s intimate Cage stage. It works brilliantly with Joseph Ed Thomas’ lighting design, the flickering of lights not only signifying the dodgy electrics in the flat, but also rapid scene changes. At the back of the stage, beautiful gradients shine through the blinds, and when in Australia, Kate performs under a hot, orange glow. With flashes and colour, the lighting is urgent, intense and creative.

Though we can sense the unfolding catastrophe in Oz, Kate’s mental health battle in London feels disconnected from it. Aside from her having friends and family in both countries, the link between the two halves of the story isn’t as apparent as it could be. In the UK, the revelation of Kate’s struggle often follows a repetitive routine each time Newbery-Payton’s character checks in on her. She asks if she is okay, before pressing her further, leading to Kate revealing another bad circumstance which has happened in a sudden outburst, from losing her job to being cheated on.

Again, perhaps the distancing and repetition may well be intentional, referring to how we remove ourselves from issues in other countries and how we just move on. If not that, then the themes of mental health and climate change could both relate to Kate’s world collapsing around her in such a devastating way. Yet, in the bouncing between settings it’s hard to see the progression when the narrative isn’t linear. In fact, when Kate’s vivid writing is particularly impactful in her descriptions of Australia on fire, I wonder if 39 Degrees could have been better as a solo play, staged chronologically and completely in the first person – especially given the play’s autobiographical nature, and Goodfellow’s powerful portrayal.

39 Degrees is now playing at VAULT Festival until 15 March.


Production Images: Andrew James.

Disclaimer: I saw 39 Degrees for free in exchange for a review as someone who is currently a part of VAULT Festival’s Emerging Critics scheme. I did not receive any payment for my involvement in the scheme or for this review.

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