Theatre Review: Lungs (Old Vic, London) ★★★★★

In comedy, they say timing is everything. The same could be said for programming a theatre’s season of shows. Conveniently the previous stars of Netflix’s The Crown are back together at London’s Old Vic, just as Netflix is gearing up promotion for the new season of The Crown. That’s called maximising your theatre marketing budget right there!

Yes, HRH Claire Foy and Matt Smith are working together as a couple again, this time in the very contemporary play Lungs. No big dresses or tiaras this time, as this grounded play tackles a young couple’s decision to have a child together.

Can you ethically bring a child into the world with a climate crisis and overpopulation? They are nice, middle-class, liberal-minded people living in the developed world – should they try to fill the world with more people like them to balance out all the unthinking, plastic using, fossil-fuel burning other people? As the couple keep asking themselves, “We’re good people, right?”

Told in one act, Lungs is a marathon for Foy and Smith. Long monologues, often leaping from thought to thought, delivered at a frantic pace – it’s great to watch the two of them spar in real-time. Their chemistry is organic, and the two have a canny ability to play younger or older with the subtlest of changes. And it’s because of Foy and Smith that the story flies. In some ways it’s a shame they both have such strong screen careers, because on stage is where they excel.

Despite being only eight years old, the play hits at a very real point in London’s views on climate change and sustainable living. Surrounded by ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests around the capital, as public attitudes to plastics and recycling seem to have hit a turning point, Lungs brings these very same people onto the stage and under the spotlight.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Paul Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed, in which a minister breaks down in the face of the moral responsibility of parents bringing a child into a world that is collapsing. A very different take on the material to be sure, but we seem to be starting to analyse our pessimism of the future through stories right now.

Duncan Macmillan’s script speaks to a global issue through the lens of an everyday couple. Or is it the other way around, are these everyday issues told through a global lens? It’s both I suppose. And it’s funny! Thank God it’s funny! This isn’t a polemic about how we’re terrible people, it’s a piss-funny look at the moral tangles we tie ourselves up in and how it all fits into the long tapestry of our lives. Everything we do affects the planet, as well as the people we love.

Matthew Warchus’s direction keeps your attention firmly on the two actors, as they slip from scene to scene, including some time jumps, seamlessly between sentences. The set, a small island of solar panels, is elegant in its simplicity.

In the end we have two flawed but fascinating people trying to make their way through a complex and confusing world the best they can – and it’s brilliant watching them do it.

By Chad Armstrong

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