In the queue at IKEA, a young couple discuss whether they should have a baby. From this small seed, Duncan Macmillan’s mighty play grows.
Although it’s been revived a number of times since 2011, Matthew Warchus has found exactly the right time to bring back a play about the environmental impact of having a child. Extinction Rebellion protesters are still encamped around the city, Greta Thunberg is activating an entire generation, and maybe for the first time the groundswell of optimism and activism feels like it’s swaying the balance against inertia, fossil-fuelled money making and vested interests.
But that’s not all the play is about. It’s also a tender two-handed unpacking of a relationship, very specifically a very middle class, very millennial relationship, in which good intentions – of which the couple, M and W, have many – are always hitting up against hypocrisy, and when living comfortably is always at someone else’s expense.
Macmillan’s writing is an absolute gift for good actors. Look at Denise Gough in People, Places and Things, or Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm, or Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing. So it’s a good thing Claire Foy is a very good actor. In a huge contrast to her performance in The Crown – that tightly coiled state of grace she does so well – here she can let loose.
She excels in Macmillan’s many skittish speeches full of self-doubt and self-interruption, making the naturalistic language actually seem natural.
Matthew Warchus’ production reunites Foy with her co-star from The Crown, Matt Smith. Under Warchus’ direction, they make their conversations seem really intimate. But, where Foy is incredibly endearing, Smith is a bit alienating. There’s a slightly hard, stony edge to his delivery. Let’s put some of that down to the slightly brittle masculine shell he’s wearing – after all, a lot of the play is about M’s inability to properly communicate his feelings, while she communicates them too much. But sometimes it just comes across as self-conscious, especially in contrast to Foy’s anxious, open, bleeding heart of a performance.
She settles into the character like it’s tailor-made for her, while he can’t quite work out exactly who his character is. He acts each moment well, but there’s no consistency to the whole.
They unfurl their relationship under a cluster of spotlights that each slowly extinguish, and on a platform of solar panels – sometimes sitting and lying – the hard, flat surfaces making them look constantly uncomfortable (which is a metaphor in itself I suppose).
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 entirety, Lungs is a thrilling meeting of head and heart.