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Cougar review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘intriguing, if slippery play about climate change’

Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble in Cougar at Orange Tree Theatre, London. Photo: The Other Richard

There’s a touch of absurdism to Rose Lewenstein’s new play about relationships, capitalist systems and the terrifying creep of climate change. Two people – John and Leila – start an affair based entirely in hotel rooms which she – a leading figure in corporate sustainability – pays for, while he – an affable, unemployed young man – takes up photography and waits for her in bed.  Outside, the world starts to burn.

The narrative, told through 80 short, snapshot-style scenes, is initially almost completely impenetrable, zipping and cutting through time, jumping thousands of miles in a brief moment. You have to admire Lewenstein’s nerve – letting scenes whip away before you can get a grip on the narrative. It doesn’t quite work – not enough time is given to set up what is, at its heart, a relationship drama – though the slipperiness of the writing is complemented by Chelsea Walker’s tight, focused direction and Rosanna Vize’s perfectly stylish-yet-bland hotel room.

Cougar really starts to shine when it focuses on the disintegrating relationship between humanity and the environment. Jess Bernberg’s lighting becomes more obtrusive and oppressive as floods rise and food runs out. Walker’s direction contains some truly arresting, terrible moments, and Charlotte Randle and Mike Noble’s performances become increasingly spiky and fraught.

There’s a lot of meaty stuff here – like the apathy, waste and hypocrisy of humans and corporations and how these things impact interpersonal affairs. Cougar is, however, at its least interesting when it lapses into a relationship drama – and it never seems completely sure how to coalesce both strands.

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An intriguing, if slippery, new play about climate change