02 October 2012

Weird science

Last night, I went to see The Heretic, a new play rubbishing the so-called facts behind the shock tactics used when dealing with the subject of climate change. Interestingly, when I got home, the idea of politicians using pseudo science and quack statistics to add credence to their arguments came up on the radio (the next chief scientific advisor to the government plans to ensure that scientific evidence is taken seriously by an arts-dominated civil service, apparently), fixing the feeling that the play is very “now” (we’d already been making comparisons to The Thick Of It, of which series four is currently being aired, and passing comment on academia kowtowing to the corporate world in order to secure much-needed funding).

Set in a university earth sciences faculty, lecturer and sea level expert Diane Cassell (played very competently by Cate Hamer, pictured) is the heretic (def: “the upholder of an opinion opposed to the usual or conventional belief”) in question: “I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in anything,” she says at one point. Her own research and the massaged reports of her peers have made Dr Cassell cynical about global warming, but her outspoken views and gas-guzzling lifestyle make her a target for death threats and dismissal. In fact, while the play does deal with some serious issues, emissions and ozone aside (also cropping up are anorexia, self-harm, mental health…), ultimately it’s a comedy, which, in the second act, leans more towards farce.

Writer Richard Bean’s last play, One Man, Two Guvnors, was critically acclaimed and picked up a Best New Comedy award, and The Heretic’s clever and colourful language and back-and-forth ripostes, especially with the high-falutin scientific lingo, are very funny. However, I’d say the last quarter of an hour or so lets the rest of the production down a little, and the farce feels forced and the acting a little over-egged (though Ciaran Kellgren as Ben Shotter couldn’t get much more OTT with his “yoof” accent - a misguided move, I felt, on the part of Bean and the director, Chris Honer). It’s a shame, but the dénouement is obvious; the trick played on the audience at the opening of the final scene, when Professor Kevin Maloney (Stuart Fox) comes on stage (following, incidentally, a gaping props clear-up), is cheap, and the loose ends are tied up too glibly, and in too clichéd a way.

Still, The Library have done themselves proud with the set (in the Quays Theatre at The Lowry), which, between acts, moves from a convincingly cluttered university lecturer’s office to a well-kitted kitchen in a very big house in the country (by the way, where does Dr Cassell get all this money from to have a posh pad and a Jaguar car? I thought academics were destitute!). The detail is great, right down to the house’s stable-style back door and coat hooks at the bottom of the stairs and the charts and notices in the corridor outside the office door.

There’s also a nice device when Dr Cassell is interviewed on Radio 4. Having just the audio might not have persuaded us as to the “authenticity” of the clip, but when a screen is lowered from the rafters and we see John Humphrys in all his Today programme glory, it really does add weight to the plot and makes the subsequent disciplinary scene all the more believable.

And that’s what this play is all about: believability. And I’m mostly there, just not fully.

The Heretic is on until 13 October. See the Library Theatre website for times and tickets. 

Photograph: Gerry Murray

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