Review: Wildfire Road, Sheffield Playhouse

Published in The Stage on March 9, 2023

Outside the theatre, Wildfire Road’s running time is billed at 58 minutes. Such almost comic precision is rather fitting for Eve Leigh’s tightly wound play. Beautifully crafted, it doesn’t waste a minute – and ends up doing more in (just under) an hour than many plays manage in twice that. 

The story is a compelling exploration of the climate catastrophe and what it might mean both for our individual lives and for the whole human race. Director Laura Keefe brings this all to life in a staging that is both wildly theatrical and seriously high-minded.

The premise borrows from the biggest-budget disaster and sci-fi movies: a plane is hijacked by a time-traveller from the future to divert it to safety out of the path of an apocalyptic wildfire spreading across the whole planet. Set entirely aboard an aeroplane initially bound for Tokyo, Leigh’s play makes such mega-concepts totally – if you’ll excuse the pun – fly in a small studio space, while also delivering touching moments of reflection and tenderness between panicking passengers and crew.

Their backstories tend towards the cute: a secret honeymoon between the pilot and her wife in economy; a man who’s always dreamed of going to Japan (isn’t it ironic, don’t you think) and the stranger he persuaded to go with him. But Leigh stays on the right side of quirky, and the whole thing is flawlessly delivered by a very funny cast, which also mines the inherent comedy of a bunch of a Brits trying to remain calm and polite in the face of such calamity (itself, surely a metaphor for our current approach to the climate crisis).

As the situation escalates, the terror ramps up, and Keefe’s production is always gripping. Zoë Hurwitz’s neat seat-spinning set, Amy Mae’s neon-strip lighting and Benjamin Grant’s omnipresent, ominous sound design helps wrap the audience in the nail-biting experience of a flight gone wrong.

But there’s also a gleeful streak of pop-culture surrealness here: the cast break into dance routines to thematically apt songs, from Come Fly with Me to Wind Beneath My Wings. It’s a cabaret for the end of the world, the embodiment of fiddling while Rome burns, a reflection of how an air cabin crew will smile and pretend everything is fine when it really isn’t (another climate change metaphor).

Jazz-handsing in the face of death could read glib, but it’s a testament to Keefe that it feels both seamlessly integrated and a lot of fun. Why should climate plays be wordy and worthy and a miserable old slog? Leigh and Keefe seem to ask, with a wink. Besides, Wildfire Road is, ultimately, a hopeful piece: if apocalyptic disaster is possible, maybe course-changing miracles are too.

It’s exhilarating to see such ambitiously theatrical work in Sheffield Theatre’s studio, and surely a tour or transfer beckons – Wildfire Road is ready for take-off.

Where next?