Richard Wilson’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs is everything the Roundabout Season should be about. An innovative new work, expertly handled by Wilson, on a bare stage that allows performers Alistair Cope and Kate O'Flynn to give a masterclass in raw acting talent.

Macmillan’s play is at once harrowing and blisteringly funny, bleak and redemptive, as its two characters, M and W, struggle to negotiate their way through a minefield of personal and ethical dilemmas, centering on the issue of whether it is morally responsible to bring another child onto our over-crowded planet.

The play elicited rapt attention, garrulous laughter, some tears and even audible gasps from the full house on press night. It combines hyper-real dialogue with a quirky form that expands and contracts time before our eyes, creating the almost physical sensation of being hurtled towards an uncertain future. The piece’s furious pace lives up to its title, leaving audience, and no doubt actors, feeling the need to pause for breath in a world that does not allow it.

It is O’Flynn’s tour de force performance that attracts the most attention. Her character, which never leaves the stage throughout the play’s 90 minutes, is required to ricochet between a full gamut of emotions, drawing herself from tears to enthusiasm to cynicism within a heartbeat. Cope’s role, like his character, requires him to play second fiddle to his more strident partner, and the subtlety with which he achieves this effect is a huge credit to his giving, unselfish performance. This is a team working at perfect pitch, masterfully controlled by Wilson, who drives the piece through at a pace most directors can only dream of. 

Everything about this performance is brave; from Paines Plough’s decision to develop a work, which must have looked very odd on paper, but which bursts onto the stage with urgency and vitality, to designer Lucy Osborne’s refusal to give the actors anything to hide behind. To experience the work at its best, book quickly to ensure a seat at stage level.