Playing With Fire – The Theo Fleury Story
Maclab Stage, Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Through Feb. 15, 2015

Tickets, starting at $30

Review by Graham Hicks,


Playing With Fire – The Theo Fleury Story – is not going to subject you to scene after scene of the grim sexual abuse story of Fleury’s adolescence that finally sent his hockey coach tormentor Graham James to prison.

In fact, this one-man show on the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre is surprisingly cheerful and funny, given it’s a detailed autobiographical account of the famous and diminutive Calgary Flame's ascent and then descent into a living hell of drug, alcohol and gambling addiction, then, one hopes, back to an addictions-free life.  (Who knows? The play is based on Fleury’s autobiography, published in 2009.)

It’s also innovative, played on a mini-hockey rink, with top-notch multi-media enhancements to the story, beautifully acted with Shaun Smyth taking his first lead role in a Citadel show and impeccably directed by Ron Jenkins, who's so good at creating taut, tight one-man shows that never lose their edge.

Being good Canadians who love our hockey, given the Calgary Flames are the NHL team we know second-best after the Oilers, Fleury’s story is well-known even to the arts’ crowd.

One of the smallest NHL players ever at 5’ 6”, the tough kid  from Russell Manitoba had a great career, played with a ferocious will and passion rarely seen in any athlete. He won a Stanley Cup with the Flames, was a pillar of the team and for years was one of the top scorers in the league. Fleury played on Canada’s Olympic team twice, winning the gold in 2002.

All the while, as the book and play now reveal, Fleury had larger-than-life addictions to alcohol, cocaine and then gambling that would have killed a normal person.

As he semi-jokes in the show, he somehow managed to burn through $25 million worth of hockey income in 20 years.

Indeed, Playing With Fire is testament to the human body’s resilience – that Fleury could continue to have played one of the toughest games in the world, and be at the top of his individual game, despite the non-stop abuse of his own body is a feat that defies most laws of physicality.

The remarkable thing about this show is it’s a lot of fun, because at the bottom of all the misfortune, Fleury has a cheerful outlook, has a broad sense of humour and is portrayed as a generally decent sort.

Smyth does a great job of taking us into the character – the small-town kid who just loved playing hockey, who, while his family was somewhat dysfunctional, had a bunch of childhood pals and others who cared about him as he grew up at the rink. There’s sadness about his situation, but it’s an iconic story of a Canadian kid, growing up on the prairies, loving every minute he’s on the ice.

The initial sexual abuse by  Junior A hockey coach Graham James is tactfully told, through the eyes of a young teenager whose hockey career was in his abuser’s hands.

To remember Fleury’s career, through his eyes, through his personal stories, is great fun for any hockey fan.  To win the Stanley Cup in his first year as a Flame, the great Calgary teams of the ‘90s, before, as Fleury says, all were traded but him, and his turn came in 1999.   To have gained the respect of his teammates by taking on Ken Baumgartner, the most feared fighter in the NHL, to his more spectacular goals, to his Olympic moments … all the while, video of those moments is thrown up on a long rectangular screen hanging above the mini-rink set, behind the home team bench.

Contrasting with the on-ice success is his addiction to the high life, to the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, the superficial fun that burned a trail of destruction through his personal life -  yet even within the chaos, Fleury tells some pretty humourous stories.

The logical implication is that Fleury’s problems were the result of growing up in a semi-broken home with an alcoholic dad and a pill-addicted mom, of guilt and shame and torment at the hands of James. And, as with most autobiographical tales written by individuals with much of life still to be led – today Fleury is 46 years ago – Playing With Fire ends on a positive note.

Playing With Fire comfortably straddles the no-man’s-land between theatre and sport.

I have sports-loving friends who wouldn’t go to the theatre to save their lives … but they’d love this show if they could only be convinced to give it a go.

Hey all you jocks. You’d swear you’d been let inside an athlete’s mind and on his ice for 90 minutes.

And that authenticity, by the way, is thanks to all the skilled professionals who create the illusion of real life happening up there on the stage.