Bush Theatre, London W12
  Opened 7 May, 2009

Synergy in action: a diptych of plays about catastrophically rising sea levels staged in the flood-damaged Bush Theatre. Steve Waters’ original draft proved so full of matter that it has been split into, broadly speaking, a private and a public drama (playing in repertoire, with both on Saturdays). In On The Beach, Antarctic glaciologist Will returns to the isolated house on the Norfolk coast where his parents have been living since, before his birth, his father suffered a breakdown under the burden of knowledge of the data he too had culled from Antarctic ice shelves. A stormy family reunion in Act One is followed by the older couple preparing for a tempestuous “weather event” a few months later in Act Two. In Resilience, Will’s civil servant girlfriend introduces him to her bosses, the twin ministers for climate change and resilience in a near-future Cameron government; turf wars abound between the ministers and between Will and the resident boffin, Will’s father’s former partner who suppressed the original 1970s data. In Act Two, we see the Whitehall orchestration of response to that same weather event.
There is nothing stodgily worthy about these plays. Waters has researched his subject in detail (he literally lives next door to a member of the British Antarctic Survey team), but he makes sure that the facts at his disposal come alive in characters’ mouths. Sometimes, in Michael Longhurst’s and Tamara Harvey’s respective productions, too lively: Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Will (in other respects a marvellous performance, combining scientific passion with worldly innocence) and Robin Soans as his father and the other scientist often simply get shouty at each other.
In some respects Resilience is the more exciting play, with its power struggles and minute-by-minute disaster developments in a claustrophobic setting recalling Sidney Lumet’s great nuclear-bomb movie Fail Safe. For me, though, the family drama of On The Beach and its microcosmic portrait of response is the more potent. Waters seems to believe that it will take a major disaster to make us sit up and take proper notice of this issue, and he may well be right, but the tidal calamity is less engrossing than the political one, even though his choice between two strains of Conservatism – a well-meaning but ignorant snob parachuted into a plum job due to Eton-and-Oxford chumhood with the new boss versus an outright fascist seeking to remake government wholesale in her own image – is itself a counsel of despair. But the most plaintive message is summed up by Neil Young in the song that gives the first play its title: “The world is turnin', I hope it don't turn away.”
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2009

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage