BWW Review: LUNGS, Old Vic
With Extinction Rebellion looming large in the capital, it's canny programming to revive Duncan Macmillan's 2011 play about a couple debating the merits of having a child - including fears about how introducing another person might impact the planet. The play also gets a boost from the starry casting of The Crown's Claire Foy and Matt Smith, whose established chemistry is a huge asset here.
Smith's character introduces 'the baby conversation' while they're queuing in IKEA. That conversation continues in various forms through the following scenes, which flow together in numerous locations over the coming weeks and months. Sometimes it's teasing banter, sometimes profound meditation, sometimes emotional reassurance or wounding.
This climate change-aware pair fret about the possible irresponsibility of having a baby - 10,000 tonnes of CO2, or an Eiffel Tower-sized carbon footprint - and there's an interesting dissection of what it means to be a "good" person. If they recycle, plant trees and watch subtitled films, is that enough of a virtue offset? Or is it worse if only so-called virtuous people restrain themselves from having kids, robbing the planet of potential do-gooding geniuses?
This questioning strand is carried through into their relationship, too, as the play asks whether their thoughtfulness is a sign of superior humanity or just indecision, and whether Smith's new man is a sensitive partner, or simply too passive. And does Foy's character's wish for his struggling musician to get a financially supporting steady job, and her own desire to live out some long-imagined ideal of motherhood, deny her independence and feminism?
Matthew Warchus's production brings a playfulness to proceedings, so that the angst is balanced out by wry recognition of relationship dynamics. There's that particular annoyance which comes with realising the other person might be right, but not wanting to concede the point, and we also see the shifting of modern gender politics - Foy's character challenging her partner to show strength, while also wanting a degree of control over decision-making.
As the overanalytical PhD student, whose minds whirrs down multiple tracks at once, Foy has the heftier task here - and she's a marvel to watch. Mercurial and prickly, intelligent and vulnerable, she simultaneously argues with her partner and with herself, trying to find answers in logic, fact-based evidence, gut instinct or trust, desperately fighting back against the forces of chance and chaos.
Smith's is more of a reactive role, requiring laidback charm, bruised pride and occasional bristling one-liners - all of which he delivers superbly. Played in the round, Warchus's stripped-back staging puts all focus on them, and the blocking is hugely effective: they're often pulled apart to opposite sides of the stage, like lovers on either side of a growing chasm, or two fighters in the ring.
However, there is an inescapably middle-class cosiness to Macmillan's piece, and a certain conventionality too in focussing on a white, metropolitan, heterosexual pair who never really question the socially accepted baby-making, or that it might not be all-important and self-defining. Though they fret about the global warming implications of procreation, and very briefly consider adoption, it's a fairly inevitable outcome.
It's also a shame that Macmillan didn't take the opportunity with this revival to seed in the climate change references more, since that's now an increasingly urgent, and mainstream, concern. Though Rob Howell's set features solar panels and quartz crystals, it's a theme that gradually disappears in the play itself - which instead focusses more on the personal, and reaches for a larger point in a rushed epilogue that hints at dystopia without fully grappling with it.
However, Warchus's stylish production makes a strong case for the play, as does his cast's thoughtful, tender and virtuosic performances. It might not hold the whole conversation, but it certainly starts one - and does so while also telling a very human story.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks