tue 23/07/2024

Lungs, Old Vic review - deluxe casting and slick delivery | reviews, news & interviews

Lungs, Old Vic review - deluxe casting and slick delivery

Lungs, Old Vic review - deluxe casting and slick delivery

Claire Foy and Matt Smith elevate Duncan Macmillan's rather toothless parenting drama

Two's company: Smith and Foy face the future in 'Lungs'Helen Maybanks

Playing our monarch and her husband in The Crown has made actors Claire Foy and Matt Smith into TV drama royalty, so reuniting the pair onstage guarantees a hot ticket.

What’s less clear is why Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s rather thin 2011 play, merits a major revival at the Old Vic. A two-hander charting the evolution of a couple’s relationship as they grapple with the prospect of parenthood and the future of the planet, it recycles well-worn themes, and its tone and viewpoint are as middle-class, conventional and, frankly, about as dramatically exciting as a weekly shop in Waitrose.

There’s a level of skill and intelligence to its fraught, circuitous exchanges that hints at the dazzling writer Macmillan has become. Despite fine performances from its two stars in a neat, deft production by Matthew Warchus, however, it’s a bland, self-regarding affair that feels decidedly longer than its 80-minute duration. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion may be keeping environmental issues in the headlines, but a similar sense of urgency is scarce here: beneath a faint greenwash of larger ideas, the piece is far more preoccupied with domestic politics. And like a mewling infant yet to cut its milk teeth, it lacks bite.

A nameless man and woman – young, wholesome, metropolitan – are queuing in Ikea when he drops the baby-bomb: should they get pregnant? “It’s like you’ve just punched me in the face and then asked me a maths question,” she gasps, blind-sided – and indeed everything about both play and production has a mathematical precision. Rob Howell’s set is a gridded platform that resembles graph paper, disrupted at the corners by glittering bedrock and overhung by scorching lights. On it, Foy and Smith – dressed almost like children themselves, she in dungarees, he in baggy trousers and T-shirt – engage in jittery conversational debate about love, sex, family, and the pros and cons of bringing a child into a world we’re destroying.

Round and round they go, scarcely pausing for breath, bickering, bantering, soothing and provoking, tirelessly circumnavigating their own navels. Time passes in sudden jolts. There are crises and commonplace personal tragedies, but only in the last few minutes, when the play confronts the ultimate reality that we leave life just as we come into it – alone – does it acquire much emotional heft.

Lungs, Old VicThe fractious disputes quickly become wearing. Foy’s female half of the partnership in particular – who, we learn, is a PhD student brain box – is required to deliver lengthy diatribes, in which she chivvies, castigates and interrogates Smith’s more laidback record-store worker and would-be rock musician. Being trapped in their company can be corrosive – so much so that if you were sitting behind them on a bus, you might be tempted to jump off and throw yourself under it. Their dilemmas and conflicts may (for some) be relatable; they’re hardly revelatory.

Nevertheless, Foy and Smith have an effortless chemistry, and they handle the dialogue and action, moment by moment, beat by beat, with commitment and conviction. The fluctuations of desire, the missteps and mistakes, the tenderness and the rifts – all feel keenly observed. The characters they’re playing, though, are generic, with little texture or personality beyond their well-educated niceness, their repeated assertions that they are essentially “good people”. The gender politics, too, feel slightly stale and reactionary – Foy talks of dreaming of babies while playing with dolls as a little girl, and describes the perfect wedding day as a woman’s lifelong fantasy. Smith, meanwhile, is portrayed as more sexually driven – and it’s implied that Foy will have, to some extent, to mother him as well as their baby.

The language, so jagged elsewhere, sometimes takes a swerve into mawkish Hallmark territory. And the notion that having kids is somehow an imperative – the whole point of our existence – is never satisfactorily interrogated. There are hints that the motive for procreation can be impure – that it might be narcissistic, say, a desire to ward off mortality, or simply an adherence to social convention – but they’re barely explored. Ultimately, this is an unremarkable play that has been lavished with luxury casting – and while there’s nothing uniquely demanding about these roles, it’s Smith and Foy that make it worthwhile. Plenty of new and prospective parents will probably nod along with the drama’s anxieties and wryly humorous observations. And, no argument: it’s slickly delivered.

Beneath a greenwash of larger ideas, the piece is preoccupied with domestic politics


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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