Theatre fans hoping for Richard Bean to rattle the cage of eco-warriors with his new climate change play might be in for a shock.
The Heretic is not a full-scale broadside attack on belief in climate change, nor a hissing, spitting tirade against ‘tree-hugging hippies’. It is, in fact, a laugh out loud comedy in which every other line seems to be a gag and each of the characters are endearing and absorbing in their own way.
Of course, the central character is a climate change sceptic. Dr Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson) prefers not to “believe” in the widely reported ecological change she sees more as political posturing than hard, empirical science. Yes, Bean uses her to present arguments against the use of statistics to prove almost anything, and against political and economic agendas driving the results scientists might try to chase, but the character is so much more than a mouthpiece for the playwright’s views.
An over-protective mother to an anorexic daughter with a love/hate relationship to Cassell, the strength that has enabled her to cope alone with her daughter’s illness and aggression is tested when she begins to receive death threats from eco-campaigners, and her boss, who was once her lover, tries to stand in the way of her publishing her findings for fear it will blow a large sponsorship deal.
The cast, under the direction of Royal Court Associate Jeremy Herrin, give universally top notch performances. Stevenson is electric when given the chance to soliloquise but pithy and bright when rattling through comic exchanges. James Fleet, as the professor beaten by the system, flows from strained to wistful, while relative newcomer Johnny Flynn delivers a sweet, stumbling, constantly be-hatted student desperate to be mothered and lost in a world he doesn’t quite understand.
The play is not entirely free of controversy, featuring jokes about Abu Hamza at a hook a duck stall and Allah’s first language, but Bean has never been one to duck away from trouble. The introduction of a cuddly toy polar bear masquerading as a union official proves it is not all about near the knuckle humour.
Importantly, no-one leaves the theatre feeling they have listened to a sermon decrying popular science. Instead, The Heretic gives audiences a subtle nudge towards the suggestion that there may be more to the issue of climate change than we are often told, but wraps it in a scintillatingly witty comedy with a greater percentage of giggles in the auditorium than there is methane in the air above a field full of cows.