EXPECTATIONS are high for the Library Theatre’s current production of Richard Bean’s The Heretic. Described as a ‘hilarious comedy’ about a climate change scientist who publicly questions the current orthodoxy, the play shared the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play in 2011 with Richard Bean’s very different One Man, Two Guvnors.
Sets, costume and lighting are great, communication exactly what it needed. Ciaran Kellgren gives an outstanding performance as Ben Shotter, infuriating but immensely likeable with a superb mix of intellectual confidence and social uncertainty.
There’s plenty to enjoy in The Heretic, but it fails to match the sheer almost uncontrolled splendour of the comedy in One Man, Two Guvnors.
Dr Diane Cassell, [Cate Hamer] researches sea levels and challenges the view that levels are continually rising. Having been asked by her boss, Professor Kevin Maloney, [Stuart Fox] to keep her unorthodox views quiet until the department has secured new funding; she airs her views on Radio 4’s Today programme. She’s then suspended. Other plots concern death threats posted on her gas-guzzling Jag and an incipient romance between her anorexic daughter Phoebe [Sophie Robinson] and fresher environmentalist Ben Shotter [Ciaran Kellgren].
There are some wonderful scenes, great one-liners and strong performances all round. Bean gets great laughs as Maloney delivering a critique of popular fashions in A level subjects, striking the familiar targets of Sociology, Psychology and the ubiquitous generator of holier-than-thou laughter of the middle-aged: Media Studies.
The funniest scenes centre on the university’s HR processes. The nonsense surrounding a ‘verbal warning’ which is then written down is an amusing starter and the suspension scene a hilarious second course, given real style by the performance of Polly Lister, as straight-laced Human Resources Officer Catherine Tickell.
Andrew Westfield, as ex-Royal Marine Geoff Tordoff, the university’s security chief makes the most of his brief appearances, mildly mocking the university’s ‘Excellence’ aim.
After Cassell’s suspension the second act moves from her university office to a snow-swept Yorkshire cottage hosting an attempt at a family Boxing Day. There’s more complaining from the daughter, attempts at bonding, and some strange twists. The play isn’t dull at all.
I last saw science brilliantly communicated in the Library Theatre’s superb production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. This play lacks the coherence of the Stoppard. It’s like a symphony with some great tunes, but lacking a unifying feel. The original production was apparently three hours long. The Library Theatre’s production 45 minutes shorter, presumably a rewriting rather than production cuts.
Richard Bean the writer wants to raise awareness of scientific debate; he remarks on the shortage of science graduates in Parliament, apparently only five or six, and believes we need to be much more science-literate to consider the big questions facing us. Cassell is his science champion, questioning orthodoxy, being willing to speak out, and encouraging her students to probe and question.
There’s an enlightening scene demonstrating the misuse of graphs and great use of questioning techniques in teaching. But she’s so unscientific. Why is she so willing to rant emotionally about her opponents? Why does she encourage and even contrive the romance between her anorexic daughter and her student who’s such an environmental nutcase that he has difficulty in finding food green enough to eat? And why does her scientific research necessitate an annual summer visit to the Maldives?
I found the moaning daughter infuriating rather than lovable. It’s the writing not the acting; the middle class teenager who complains that they can’t do fun or dangerous things because they’re middle class is becoming a cliché. Neither could I fathom why Cassell was so willing to host a miserable Boxing Day Maloney: he suspended her.
Sets, costume and lighting are great, communication exactly what it needed. Ciaran Kellgren gives an outstanding performance as Ben Shotter, infuriating but immensely likeable with a superb mix of intellectual confidence and social uncertainty. I also enjoyed Andrew Westfield’s security guard, at least in the first act. It’s strangely written in the second.
I can’t understand why the play shared the Evening Standard Award in 2011 with One Man, Two Guvnors. Bean’s other success benefitted from a central character who drew in the audience and made them complicit in his own extravagances. I’d love to see this play from the Security Guard’s perspective.
There is though plenty to enjoy and it’s unusual to see a modern play taking the side of climate change sceptics.
The Heretic is in performance at The Lowry until Saturday 13 October. Box office: 0843 208 6010. www.thelowry.com
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