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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Contingency Plan (On The Beach and Resilience)
Bush Theatre Spring 2009

Steve Waters' two plays both address the issue of climate change, one a personal drama with almost incidental reference to science and politics, and the other a political polemic lightly dressed in human drama. Surprisingly, it is the polemic that is more successful.

(According to one report, this began as a single play but grew so long that separating out two plot stands was suggested. The plays cover the same time span, two characters appear in both, and the others are all referred to in the play they're not in.)

In On The Beach, a scientist who warned about melting icecaps and rising sea levels thirty years ago, only to be rejected by both scientists and politicians, suffered a breakdown and retreated to a Norfolk seaside home where he has been obsessively collecting data to support his thesis.

But he has lost the plot so completely that when his son, also a scientist, finds new evidence to support his warnings, all he can do is berate the younger man for incomplete research and premature leaping to conclusions, especially when he learns that the younger man is bringing his recommendations to the hated government.

There's lots of debate on scientific method and explanation of how a perfect storm could flood half of Britain, but the real centre of the play is the older man's inbred obsessiveness, which gradually moves in our perception from sad eccentricity to dangerous madness, just as our understanding of his loyal wife shifts to culpable enabler of his delusions.

But what keeps this from being a fully moving tragedy is the fact that the man is also quite unpleasant, so that you may find yourself half-wishing that the waters would rise and give him the end he so eagerly anticipates.

The two younger people - there's also the son's girlfriend - are really just plot devices, and the play is carried by the performances of Robin Soans and Susan Brown. It is very much to their credit and to director Michael Longhurst that we come to understand both characters in all their destructive and self-destructive darkness - even though it is those qualities that ultimately make it difficult for us to care about them.

Resilience takes the story into the political realm, as the son from the other play comes to advise a Parliamentary committee. He finds two rival ministers jockeying for dominance and an elder scientist jealously guarding his turf as government advisor.

Along with a harried civil servant (the girlfriend from the other play) they all bicker while Rome burns - or, in this case, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and the prospect of a perfect storm threaten to flood much of Britain.

The older scientist thinks the dangers are exaggerated and there's plenty of time to plan for whatever milder results of global warming eventually come along, while the younger guy fears that it's already too late, and the ministers - one of them out of his depth and the other secretly wishing for the worst, to facilitate her political plans - are far too busy scoring points off each other to pay much attention. And then the storm comes....

As a polemic, Resilience makes all its arguments clearly - it's going to happen, we can't stop it, and the best we can do is prepare to cope with the new reality when it arrives, which means building dykes, moving the populace inland and writing Norfolk and East Anglia off as lost causes - and we should have started doing this thirty years ago because the last minute will be too late.

But that's an editorial. Making it dramatic is another question, and while Waters goes pretty far toward individualising the mouthpieces for the various arguments, giving them back stories and lives, and making events like the night of the big storm theatrically exciting, the fact remains that all this is happening just to get the big warning out.

Ultimately you will respond (positively or negatively, according to your predispositions) to the ideas more than the characters, and your intellect will be engaged more than your emotions.

And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with a drama of ideas, as long as there's at least a minimal human story to clothe them in, and Waters provides that much. It means, though, that the actors and director Tamara Harvey have to present characters defined by little more than their roles in the debate.

Geoffrey Streatfeild's young scientist has to be frantic and over-emotional throughout while Robin Soans makes the older boffin smug and egotistical, and David Bark-Jones and Susan Brown bravely play politicians who must become less respectable and likeable as they go along.

The two plays are being performed in rep and might together be more than the casual theatregoer cares to know about the subject. Choose one based on whether you'd prefer a human portrait, however unattractive (On The Beach) or the theatrical presentation of a political and scientific thesis (Resilience).

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Contingency Plan - Bush 2009