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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


  Juliet Stevenson, Adrian Hood and James Fleet/ Ph: Keith Pattison

Climate-change comedy: it’s a phrase that might turn the average drama-lover cold. Make it climate-change rom-com, and you’d be forgiven for assuming it might be a better bet to do your bit for carbon-emissions reduction by avoiding that trip to the theatre altogether. But if the play in question is Richard Bean’s latest, you’d be wrong. Miraculously, the work, and the excellent production by Jeremy Herrin, succeeds in making environmental debate zing.
Bean doesn’t flag-wave, never climbs aboard a soapbox, and takes a mischievous delight in putting the cogent arguments of an intelligent, well-balanced, well-informed skeptic at his play’s moral and emotional centre. Add to that a couple of touching love stories, some well-aimed swipes at the higher-education system and even some elements of a stage thriller, and it’s all warming up as rapidly as the eco-warriors insist our planet is.
The heretic in question is Dr Diane Cassell (a spicily witty Juliet Stevenson), who is a professor in Earth sciences at a modern university. After a lengthy career, she and her colleague and erstwhile lover, Kevin (James Fleet), the department head, suddenly find themselves and their discipline the fashionable choice for eager young undergraduates – displacing, as Kevin contemptuously points out, psychology, which made “bullshit acceptable, paving the way for media studies and 10 years of mind-numbing bollocks.”
The new generation's students, maintains Diane, are “disaster junkies;” and her own scientific view – that there is no proven basis for climate-change theory – is controversial. It’s also deeply problematic for Kevin, who is hoping to attract a large grant from an international insurance firm, predicated on the university’s producing evidence of a sea-level rise. What’s more, she’s receiving death threats from an extremist environmental group, the Sacred Earth Militia, and her own daughter – a troubled, argumentative anorexic and Greenpeace supporter – takes issue with her at every opportunity.
There’s a Galilean heroism to Diane’s steadfast adherence to her intellectual principals – particularly when they lead to her suspension. And there is brilliant, bitter humour when, at a meeting with a patronising human resources officer, she shows her contempt for the proceedings when she suborns a stuffed-toy polar bear to be her advocate. But it’s one of the great assets of Bean’s play that, even if he occasionally lards on too many facts and stats, the drama is essentially human – and the personal trumps the political every time.
So in the second act, which takes place just after Christmas in Diane’s rural home, there’s a touching romance between Diane’s student Ben and her daughter, and a rekindling of relations between Diane and Kevin, while the possibility of violence from Diane’s green-fundamentalist opponents bubbles under, a constant source of enlivening tension. True, the play sometimes feels slightly cluttered; but it’s a coruscating expression of the way in which green issues have become, as Diane puts it, “a proxy for anything ... the perfect religion for a narcissistic age.” And best of all, it actually makes political dialectic heartwarming, and hugely entertaining.

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