Talk about timely. With Greta Thunberg shaming the world’s political leaders at the UN, and Extinction Rebellion protests causing chaos in London and elsewhere, along comes a revival of Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s two-hander about a modern couple and the climate crisis.
First produced in 2011, in both Washington and Sheffield simultaneously, Lungs follows a man and a woman as they progress towards parenthood, wracked with angst over the environmental impact of their actions. It really kicked off Macmillan’s cracking career – Every Brilliant Thing, 1984, People Places and Things, and Rosmersholm would follow.
Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus’ 90-minute, in-the-round production is royally recognised as well, after a fashion. Claire Foy and Matt Smith – the Queen and Prince Philip in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown – make much-hyped returns to the stage, starring together in a show that runs until early November.
But can Macmillan’s play captivate the critics eight years on from its premiere? Do Foy and Smith slip seamlessly from screen to stage? Is Lungs a blast of fresh air, or does it smell stale? Deep breath…
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Macmillan first made his mark by winning an award – the 2005 Bruntwood Prize for Monster – and has been no stranger to success subsequently, earning Olivier nods for both 1984 and People Places and Things along the way. Lungs was lauded at the Offies in 2013, and some critics still can’t get enough.
It’s “witty, touching and unsettling” according to John Nathan (Metro ★★★★), “often hilarious” and “frequently poignant” according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★), and “a clever, darting thing” that’s “a bit of a wonder” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★★).
“It’s smartness resides in the fact that it takes a big, unwieldy subject – climate change and its effect on people’s decision-making as they try to consider the future of the planet – and boils it into a domestic situation that everyone can recognise,” she observes.
But there are those that disagree. “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,” writes Sam Marlowe (TheArtsDesk ★★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★) calls it “potent, prescient but not wholly persuasive”.
“Even if Macmillan’s play gets a bit irritating in its iterations of liberal, middle-class hand-wringing, there are many, many killer lines and, in its entirely, Lungs is a thrilling meeting of head and heart,” reasons Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★★), and most critics concur – it’s a good play, not a great one.
“Lungs isn’t a flat-out masterpiece,” concludes Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★). “But it is a good play about climate change.”
Casting doesn’t come much classier than this. Foy and Smith are recognised worldwide for their screen success, but they have substantial stage pedigree as well. Foy featured opposite James McAvoy’s Macbeth in 2013, and Smith starred in That Face, American Psycho and Unreachable.
Both are praised pretty much all round. They “cope brilliantly with the technical and tonal challenges” according to Cavendish, while Curtis calls it “an acting masterclass” and Clive Davis (Times ★★★★) reckons they both supply “bravura” performances.
“These characters are instantly convincing as a trendy young couple arguing in an Ikea queue,” Arifa Akbar (Guardian ★★★★) argues. “She is a PhD student in dungarees and rolled up shirt sleeves, he is a new man in Nike trainers, nodding along to her stridency.”
Smith is good – “masterly” according to Crompton, with a remarkable “ability to be still and to listen” – but he’s outshone, according to some. “Smith is great but the role doesn’t stretch him,” says Bano, while Will Longman (LondonTheatre ★★★★) admires his “lackadaisical demeanour” but notes that he “feels like a supporting player to Foy’s performance”.
Foy, though, is fantastic. She “makes the most of every beat in her rich lines, finding humour, warmth and pathos as well as capturing the grating qualities that make her character hard, sometimes, to love,” extols Crompton, while Longman says that she “shines with her character’s fizzy brain sparking off in all directions” and Cavendish calls her performance “exhilarating in its runaway force”.
Warchus has helmed the Old Vic since 2015, and his work there in that time – following on from his Olivier Award-winning, still-running production of Matilda – has been top notch: Present Laughter, Groundhog Day and The Master Builder were all huge critical hits. Has he added another with Lungs?
It hasn’t done him any harm, that’s for sure. His production is “sharp” and “snappy”, always “teetering on the edge of belly-laugh comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy” according to Longman, while for Curtis he handles “Macmillan’s overlapping, unfiltered dialogue masterfully” and for Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt) his direction is perfectly “neat and tidy”.
“He uses Rob Howell’s in-the-round set of solar panels with great flair, staging the conversations like a dance, measuring the distances between the characters as they go through the different stages of their lives and their emotions,” describes Crompton. “It’s unobtrusively sharp direction.”
There are a couple of questions. Firstly, a few critics are concerned about the tone, which is “broader and more sitcommy than previous, more experimental productions” and “leans too much on hoary truisms about the differences between men and women” according to Lukowski.
And secondly, several are unconvinced by the ending, which is “rushed, gimmicky and riddled with cliché” according to Akbar, “perfunctory” according to Curtis, and just unnecessary, according to Crompton.
It’s definitely good. But it’s not five-star, full-on fabulous. Four-star reviews from the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, The Stage and Evening Standard and almost everywhere else suggests this is a solid, stylish show, but not a spectacular one.
Foy and Smith both cast off their crowns comfortably, even if she somewhat outshines him. Warchus directs with typical deftness, aside from a couple of curious decisions. And Macmillan’s play, although not up there with his award-winning best, is still slick, skilful and, in 2019, seriously relevant.