The Contingency Plan

Bush Theatre, 22 April – 6 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

If anthropogenic climate change is the greatest challenge currently facing mankind, then right now Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre is the most important artwork in the country.

Either individually or combined, On the Beach and Resilience – the independent but complementary constituent plays of Waters’ double bill – trumpet an uncompromising challenge to conventional, optimistic projections regarding the results of our effect on the climate.

In On the Beach, glaciologist Will Paxton (Geoffrey Streatfeild) returns home to Norfolk after an extended stint in Antarctica, to present his new girlfriend Sarika (Stephanie Street) to his parents, and to confront his reclusive father Robin (Robin Soans), who gave up glaciology two decades ago to observe sea birds on the salt marshes.

In Resilience, Sarika likewise presents Will to the Ministry for Climate Change, where he faces off against Colin (also Robin Soans), the colleague that discredited his father, in an attempt to convince the new Conservative government to legislate according to his own radically pessimistic predictions of coastal flooding in Britain.

If you can see both (highly recommended), see On the Beach first. If you can’t, see Resilience: though its focus is squarely on the policy makers and not those affected first hand by the crisis, it contains not only the best laughs (mostly courtesy of David Bark-Jones’ dangerously clueless Minister), but also the most important science.

Will’s solution is that there is no solution; there’s nothing left to do but retreat inland and abandon the coast to the North Sea. Before Resilience’s interval he reels off a list of draconian-sounding measures, including compulsory purchase and demolition of non-carbon neutral homes. Waters and his agent are adamant that the science used in the play is sound and rigorously up to date.

Downers don’t come much bigger, but neither play ever ceases to entertain, even when Soans’ characters show their similarities by breaking out the visual aids. Hard science and the accompanying pessimism are counterbalanced by dramatic flair in both the text and the performances. While the big issue naturally and rightly dominates, Will’s relationship with his father gets nearly as much exposure; and Street, along with Susan Brown as both Will’s mother and Tessa, Minister for Resilience, fly the flag for women finding footholds in predominantly male arenas. Soans’ portrayal of two similar but distinct obsessives, one comical, one eventually somewhat sinister, particularly stands out.

The only ray of hope in Waters’ predicted stormfront is that both plays are set a few years in the future. If the science is as solid as he claims, we can only hope the policy makers don’t greet him as Chris greets Will – at first jovially, then later bitterly, as “Nostradamus”.

Written by Steve Waters

Crew includes Tamara Harvey (director, Resilience), Michael Longhurst (director, On the Beach), Tom Scutt (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting designer) and Emma Laxton (sound designer)

Cast includes David Bark-Jones (Chris), Susan Brown (Jenny in On the Beach/Tessa in Resilience), Robin Soans (Robin in On the Beach/Colin in Resilience), Geoffrey Streatfeild (Will) and Stephanie Street (Sarika)

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