Minerva Theatre, Chichester – until 6 August 2016
THE NEW F-WORD (AND A FAIR FEW OF THE OLD ONE)
You can trust Alistair Beaton to keep a cast learning last-minute lines. Here, just as grace-notes alongside the main theme, are jokes about Brexit, Southern Rail, and the new Foreign Secretary. His central theme, though, in this new satiri-polemico-sitcom, is the cynical, corrupt, socially divisive hypocrisies, political manoeuvring and reasonable anxieties surrounding the technology of shale gas extraction: fracking. It doesn’t quite achieve the dark brilliance of Beaton’s Blair-era “FEELGOOD”, but makes for solid and horribly instructive entertainment.
Elizabeth, played by Anne Reid, is a retired academic who is opposing fracking rigs and lorries in the fictional Fenstock. Her husband (James Bolam) gently resents the time and attention this takes from shared gardening and Scrabble: both bring their genius for combining sharp sitcom timing with real depth of personality: particularly Reid, whose journey through the play takes her from well-mannered civic indignation to a willingness for direct action. Against them stand the fracking company.
The MD Michael Simkins (again, catching a sense of human depth below the absurdities) is a straightforward oilman with – a nicely credible touch – a prim reaction to the torrent of f-words habitual to the real villain: Oliver Chris as a PR man. Watching Chris’s sinuous, supersmart panther grace and nicely balanced alternation of charm and menace, one can only reflect how deep the idea of Malcolm Tucker / Alastair Campbell has sunk into modern mythology: the foul-mouthed cynical ruthless spinner as a hate figure now stands alongside the “very fat man who waters the workers’ beer”.
Alongside these players we have Andrea Hart as a fortysomething activist cougaring in a tent in Elizabeth’s garden with a Swampy-type 22 year old: a pagan vegan environmentalist with green dreadlocks. In the part Freddie Meredith – and indeed the lines he is given – seemed for a while so unconvincing that I became convinced he would turn out to be an undercover stooge of the oil company, hired to make protesters look violent and stupid rather than well-informed citizens like Elizabeth. Whether this proved right or wrong, no spoilers, the performance was too cartoonish for comfort. There are indeed several nice twists and unexpected betrayals towards the end, never mind whose.
Beaton’s researches are admirable: on the technology of fracking, carbon emissions, pollution risks, and the degree to which we may need it to stop the lights going out. It is, as I say, instructive. Maybe a touch too much so at the expense of deeper social observation: I would, for instance, have liked to see some of the neighbours who, offered the oil company’s financial sweetener, would oppose Elizabeth and Jenny and cause bitter rifts like those we are currently suffering over Brexit.
But it is an engrossing and fast-moving evening under Richard Wilson’s direction, with a neat revolving set by James Cotterill which beautifully underlines the contrast between a glassy glossy PR office and Elizabeth’s homely beamed cottage. And you know it’s the great Beaton at work when you get wonderful observations like the PR man’s habit of always asking people “How was New York?” when they’ve only been to Scunthorpe or Newark. Apparently – one horribly suspects this is true – in his world people are always so flattered that they respond as if they had indeed just flown back. That’s good.
box office 01243 781312 to 6 August