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Lungs Claire Foy and Matt Smith Photo: Helen Maybanks

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Lungs

By Duncan Macmillan
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on October 20, 2019
www.oldvictheatre.com
Until November 9, 2019

Lungs Claire Foy Photo: Helen Maybanks

This is a play about having a baby. Would you, could you, should you? It blends two great preoccupations; the burdens of bringing a new-born into the world, a universal one, and the anxieties about how climate change should now make one reflect more on this, a more recent concern. It couldn’t be more of a Play for Today.

If that makes it sound worthy, it isn’t for a second. It’s a two-hander which runs just 80 minutes straight and is graced by two exquisite performances which together make it soar. He lobs the question (should we have a baby?) at her amid the queue at IKEA and what follows is a very deft examination of the aftermath of that casual remark.

Writer Duncan Macmillan has an amazing ear for intimate conversations and the rapid-fire dialogue blends wit with intellectual heft without losing its heart. He cleverly distils the ongoing discussions which happen between couples which shape their lives more than the big showdowns. What could have been a dry set of debating points instead is a heady brew of questions about responsibility and how interpersonal, political and social pressures all collide for a couple at time when climate change looms above us all.

And could there be any better star casting than Claire Foy and Matt Smith who play the unnamed couple here? Huge stars on the back of TV megahit The Crown, their chemistry positively sizzles. Like a poster pair for The Green New Deal these thirtysomethings constantly obsess about living ‘green’. The potential carbon footprint of their offspring even becomes a major determining factor on their decision to procreate. In lesser hands these two could appear unbearable but Macmillan and the actors totally humanise them.

Macmillan of course had great success here and on Broadway with People, Places and Things and here again he has expertly trimmed this play down to the bone. He is aided by Matthew Warchus’ masterful yet delicate direction, giving it the unshowiness it needs. Staged in traverse style there are no scene changes, no set to speak of (apart from two solar panels which even double as beds) and time lapses occur in a flash but are totally clear. It never seems like a talky radio play.

Thankfully not, because you must see these great actors in the flesh. Foy’s face is like an ever-altering cloudscape, so many quicksilver changes of mood. Smith matches her with a totally convincing portrayal of a millennial male desperately trying to keep up with his intellectually superior partner. He’s a struggling musician and she’s an academic. She’s supremely verbal, cerebral and over-analytical while he’s “buffering” as she so tartly puts it. He’s stymied into not always responding and then blamed for not talking. She catastrophises; he drifts along; because he plainly adores her.

Foy beautifully embodies the crippling anxieties of the first-time mother and Macmillan is great on the impact of the decision on the couple’s relationship. Once the decision is made to proceed even the conception itself becomes “a thing”.

The play, which maps the troubled course of the pregnancy and afterwards, is great too on the shifting currents of modern sexual politics and on what pregnancy and motherhood have now become, at least for the metropolitan middle class. Whilst the previous generations (and it could be argued the working class and the new immigrants of today), just get on with making babies, for millennials motherhood has now become a daunting feat of project management with very high standards expected and everyone drowning in data - if not knowledge.

This is a play for today but one which will live on.

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