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The Trials at the Donmar Warehouse – review

Dawn King's play is an interrogation of a climate catastrophe legacy and features two stars from Heartstopper

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The company of The Trials
© Helen Murray

As a parent of two 20-something children, aunt to two 20-something nieces, and as a generally interested citizen, I spend most of my life feeling guilty about climate change. Young people know that it is their future that my generation is messing up. This long hot summer has been a further warning. We should be on the streets; but most of the time, we aren't.

The Trials is designed to make me and everyone like me – the dinosaurs – acknowledge and recognise our guilt. Dawn King's bold play, first produced at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus last year, imagines a damaged world in the not-too-distant future where a jury of young people are putting their elders on trial for their failure to halt climate change when they could.

It's uncomfortable, urgent viewing. It presents a planet which can no longer sustain its population, where the air is so polluted that you can't open a window, where flights and meat-eating are banned. In a run-down room, with damaged furniture piled high (designed by Georgia Lowe), the youngsters deliberate the fate of the defendants.

King cleverly nails not just the dystopian vision, but the evasions and lack of commitment to green living that have caused it, particularly in the period since 2018 when the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming specifically warned that rapid and far-reaching transitions in political policy were needed to save the planet from over-heating.

The first defendant, a blustering Nigel Lindsay, thinks the fact that he had organic food delivered and that his second car was electric, should acquit him of all charges; the second, Lucy Cohu, frantically argues that her role as an artist more than compensates for her failure to fight; the third, a tearful Sharon Small acknowledges greenwashing.

Around their monologues, the passionate arguments of the jurors swirl with equal conviction. The great glory of both the play and the production, directed by Natalie Abrahami with a touch that seems light but is always sure, is the fervour of this debate. The playing is staggeringly truthful and direct. The cast includes William Gao and Joe Locke who have both recently shot to fame in Netflix's Heartstopper, and there are other familiar faces but thanks to the Donmar's community engagement programme, many are making their professional theatre debuts. All are excellent.

The company of The Trials at Donmar Warehouse
© Helen Murray

The lines of battle are clearly delineated; some of the youngsters believe that all the defendants have to be guilty because they didn't act when they had a chance. Others argue that without humanity and compassion, humanity itself does not stand a chance. But beneath the broad debate, individuals stand out. There's arsey Tomaz (Charlie Reid), who reveals surprising qualities of imagination and empathy, and Meréana Tomlinson's gentle Kako whose parents have enjoyed the good life but is now alone; there is ferocious Gabi (Jowana El-Daouk) whose poverty means that she has always fought for social change and Noah (Locke's character) whose anger is powered by the agony of watching his parents drown.

Many of these imagined lives have been touched by tragedy and by difficult decisions. They could – and occasionally do - seem schematic. It is to the actors' extreme credit that they make them seem so vivid. If you wanted to be critical you might say that King ducks the knottiest question she poses – how within a capitalist system, you resist and campaign for change. Nevertheless, it seems a great pity that such a powerful discussion only has a two-week run at the Donmar. It will play to the choir, but it deserves to be seen and heard by a far wider audience.