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Claire Foy and Matt Smith are magnetic in this big stage outing for Duncan Macmillan’s climate change drama
Following its 2019 run, the Old Vic’s production of ‘Lungs’ was revived with Matt Smith and Claire Foy, but without a live audience to be the first show in the theatre’s In Camera strand. It returns for 2021 as part of In Camera: Playback – in essence, a series of digital repeats at a cheaper price than the original live show.
Talk about a play coming into its time. Duncan Macmillan’s ‘Lungs’ and its depiction of an unnamed couple freaking out over what to do with their lives in the face of imminent climate catastrophe was hardly irrelevant when it premiered in London seven years ago.
But without labouring the point, our national vibes have gone a bit downhill since the year of the Olympics. In particular, fear of climate change has gone seriously mainstream. Arguably the unnamed couple’s worries marked them as having a certain right-on strand of neurosis in the original Paines Plough production; in 2019, existential dread about what we’ve done to the environment is consuming us all.
Of course, there’s another reason why Matthew Warchus’s Old Vic revival of ‘Lungs’ feels particularly zeitgeisty, and that’s a little matter of the casting: this is the next project for erstwhile ‘The Crown’ royal couple Claire Foy and Matt Smith.
They’re a big draw, and funnily enough are not totally different from their recent screen roles. Not because there’s any RP going on. But because, broadly speaking, he’s the laid-back, slightly caddish one, content to go with the flow; and she’s the more uptight, more traumatised one who must lead the way.
Warchus’s revival is broader and more sitcommy than previous, more experimental productions of the play. The humour, in particular, succumbs to a few more cliches, leans a little too much on hoary truisms about the differences between men and women. But it also has more emotional weight.
In Warchus’s uncluttered, in-the-round production of Macmillan’s abruptly time-and-place-skipping play, the only scenery is Rob Howell’s stylised set of solar panels underpinned by quartz crystals. Nonetheless, the first scene is set in an Ikea, where she has an almighty freak out at the prospect of having a child. He remains relatively cool and detached and, well, Matt Smith-ish; she continues to fret, spewing great neurotic screeds about the rights and wrongs of bringing a new life into the world. ‘I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower!’ she splutters, contemplating the 10,000 tonnes of carbon a baby will eventually consume.
Are her worries for real, or just displacement? I think one of the clever things about the play is that it is, in fact, both. The pair’s relationship is clearly under some strain, in a way that relationships are, as they transition from their twenties to their thirties.
It’s right of them to be afraid of the future; the thing is, the future is scarier than it used to be; and the play’s deft final scenes confirm that ‘Lungs’ is serious about being a climate change drama, without actually going overtly dystopian on our asses.
Ultimately, ‘Lungs’ is about guilt: yes, that slightly wanky motivator known as ‘middle-class guilt’. But something deeper than that: guilt at having failed a partner, guilt at having failed a child, guilt at having failed your younger self… guilt at having failed the planet. Smith and Foy are always watchable, and ‘Lungs’ is funny throughout. But their performances – hers in particular – grow immeasurably in stature as the short play wears on, as they’re virtually crushed by the world until finally the world pretty much forces them to make a stand against it.
Historically, there have not been a lot of good plays about climate change. ‘Lungs’ isn’t a flat-out masterpiece: but it is a good play about climate change, and I hope this production has a life beyond its current brief stint. It’s not so much that it that tells us what we should be afraid of. It knows what we’re afraid of already – and there’s comfort in that.