Theatre Review: Lungs, Old Vic

BY CHRISTOPHER WALKER

Thanks to Extinction Rebellion, commuting in London, indeed even getting to the theatre, has been hell in the past few weeks, writes Christopher Walker.

It is therefore somewhat appropriate that the Old Vic should choose now to stage Lungs, a play about two climate change zealots.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith, the on-screen star couple in The Crown, are obviously a winning team. Once more united here, success is assured.

Duncan Macmillan is a teacher whose climate change activism made him become a playwright.

He started writing Lungs 10 years ago, so must feel very much that his moment has now come.

He confesses that the original versions were “weighed down by research,” but the final script shows he has found how to make his arguments relevant to a wide audience.

The two characters are anonymous – M, played by Matt Smith, and W played by Claire Foyle, presumably simply ‘Man’ and ‘Woman.’

But over the course of the play (1hr 40mins with no interval), we come to know them inside out. Literally.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith, who play M and W respectively in Lungs, which runs until November 9 at the Old Vic

M and W start arguing about whether it is acceptable or not to bring a baby into this world in the queue at Ikea, and they never stop.

W argues that it is unthinkable to bring another spoilt western baby into the world consuming the CO2 equivalent of “the Eiffel Tower”. A recurring theme in the play is whether M and W are “good people”.

This couple’s activism seems very much to be about self-flagellation. There is no discussion, for example, about how we should stop China – the real climate change culprit.

At one point W worries about how much meat they eat, how often they fly, how much they give to charity, and, yes, whether they can dare to have a baby.

On the face of it, whatever your views on climate change, W would seem a very annoying person, and she is at times. But thanks to the quality of Mr Macmillan’s writing and Claire Foy’s acting, we start to sympathise with her.

By the end of the play we’re in love with her ourselves. Ms Foy is clearly keen to erase any stereotyping in future acting roles.

Having been the punk lesbian hacker in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, she now plays a very foul mouthed (be warned) activist. Elizabeth Windsor seems a long way away.

It is nonetheless a very strong performance. She is the more political of the two, and the more strident.

At one point M tells her to slow down, pause – “breathe….breathe.” She has to cope with various adversities in the plot, which allow Ms Foy to fully fathom her depths as a character.

Matt Smith no doubt shares Foy’s desire not to be stereotyped, although his character as the roving-eyed alpha male is perhaps closer to his role in The Crown.

Both of them expend significant energy as they bounce about the stage, and Matt Smith, who still attracts a devoted following from his Dr Who days, has clearly been working out, as his tight T-shirt attests.

This is a difficult piece to act and direct. And Director Matthew Warchus deserves credit for pulling this all together. This is particularly true of the scene changes, effected in this barren staging by one or both characters simply spinning round.

And also in the last 10 minutes of the play when we flash through the remaining 50 years of the couple’s life together at breakneck speed.

All in all an excellent tour de force by two top actors and a brilliant director, which well-deserved its standing ovation.

Lungs plays at the Old Vic until November 9 http://www.oldvictheatre.com
Box Office 0344 871 7628.

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