Sam Brooks’ ‘Burn Her’ is dark, funny and wonderfully uncomfortable

As I walk into Q Theatre’s Loft for the opening night of Burn Her, I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve seen posters for this show around town, but I honestly have no idea what it’s about.

The stage is simple; just a couple of desks and panelling from the roof. This will soon be transformed to election night, 2017. A fledgeling new party, the Aroha Party, has managed to claw its way into Parliament with one seat. We quickly meet the new MP, party leader Aria (Miriama McDowell), as she delivers a rousing speech to her constituents, speaking of her goal to deliver breakfast to every school child across the country.

Burn Her is the latest production from award-winning writer and journalist Sam Brooks. Dark and scarily believable, it’s a story of PR spin, media, politics and scandal. It’s freakily relevant to today’s world too; quite impressive considering it was written, Brooks says, pre-Weinstein.

Without giving too much away, the play deftly tackles issues around victimisation and the double standards of how women are treated in politics, primarily by men. It’s a show about strong women doing what they have to (but shouldn’t have to) do to get ahead. Brooks’ script is funny, dramatic and twisting – sometimes all at once. It’s filled with moments that, quite literally, made the opening night audience gasp, not to mention laugh and applaud. The first half is a masterclass in tension, and while the second half lost me slightly in the middle, I was quickly drawn back in before the end.

Despite only having a cast of six, the play never feels minimal. In fact, when looking over the cast list to write this review, I thought there surely had to be more than six performers – the show feels bigger than that. In addition to McDowell’s Aria, there’s George (Bree Peters – the real-life daughter of Winston Peters), a PR master; Harriet (Amelia Reynolds), a reporter for the Herald; Lauren (Andi Crown), the Labour Party’s villainous spin doctor; Danny (Geordie Holibar), an intern for the Aroha Party; and Richard (Roy Ward), Aria’s long-time mentor and a lifetime creature of politics. While McDowell shines as Aria, bringing warmth and honesty to her performance, it was the interactions between Peters and Crown, both as crafty PR machines, that were the most memorable for me.

Ths is an excellent production, and one I hope gets to play to audiences outside of Auckland as well; fingers crossed for a Wellington season, because how perfect would that be?. It’s superbly written, performed and directed. Get out and see it, now!

Burn Her is a play that has captured PR spin and the political ‘now’ in an entertaining mix of humour, tension and the right dose of surprises to keep the audience hooked.

Burn Her is playing at Q Theatre’s Loft until the 18th of August.

Reviewed by Steward Sowman-Lund.