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The Contingency Plan at Sheffield Crucible – review

A new double bill of the 2009 plays comes to Sheffield

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The company of Resilience
© Marc Brenner

On a day when performances of the two plays in Steve Waters' climate change double-bill The Contingency Plan were separated by a well-attended panel event with experts on climate change as well as people involved in the plays, the rain beating down on Tudor Square seemed oddly appropriate.

The two plays – On the Beach and Resilience – originally staged at the Bush in 2009, have undergone considerable updating, most notably in the case of Resilience. On the Beach is the more elusive in tone. Robin, a former glaciologist, and his wife Jenny look forward to the return of their son, Will, from the Antarctic, but his arrival sparks conflict. Robin expects Will to complete his work, abandoned years before; Will finds the situation more complex. Robin admits that, in a sense, his findings were based on a lie in that his colleague, Colin Jenks, falsified the figures. Worst of all, Will has brought with him his new girlfriend, Sarika Chatterjee, a senior civil servant who, it transpires, has offered him a post as government adviser. Robin's reaction, as a scientist pure and simple, is predictably furious.

Waters links both plays cleverly in terms of their structure. Sarika's summons to Will to come to London for an urgent meeting in On the Beach leads to the first act of Resilience; meaning the second half of both plays operate across the same time spectrum, in Norfolk and London.

Chelsea Walker's production of the first play seems hampered by Georgia Lowe's common set: a walkway with an uncomfortably steep step leads off upstage and a large table/tank dominates the centre stage – the minutiae of people sitting for meals seems to have been forgotten.

Robin is a difficult character to realise, traumatised by his experiences, now fascinated by the birds on the Norfolk coast and rejecting all elements of modernity, and Peter Forbes is fully convincing only in the poetic, apocalyptic second act. Geraldine Alexander, playing possibly the only truly sympathetic character in the two plays, is excellent. Joe Bannister, coming to terms with the world again as Will, and Kiran Landa, ever the civil servant as Sarika, lay down markers for the second play.

This is where the production, now in the hands of Caroline Steinbeis, really hits its stride. Described as a satire, though building to a potentially tragic conclusion, it benefits from the strange events in and around Parliament these past few years. The newly-inserted presence in the script of such bogeymen as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Cummings lightens the tone, especially when the role of unelected advisers has been subject to – shall we say? – scrutiny.

What's more, recent events enable us to accept the foul-mouthed, spectacularly incompetent, do-anything-for-a-sound-bite Christopher Casson, Secretary of State for Resilience – a gloriously entertaining performance from Paul Ready, locked in a battle with his Minister of State Tessa Fortnum (Alexander as the Tory lady par excellence, though that red outfit comes as a bit of a surprise). Paralleling this is the battle of the advisers between Will, smuggled in by Sarika advocating extreme action, and a much more complacent Colin Jenks (Peter Forbes as another memorable grotesque). On top of this, Sarika is trying to manipulate them all.

The long first act is more about political power than tackling climate change, occasional thundering exchanges between Will and Jenks breaking up the self-serving ministerial procrastination. By act two Will, uneasy in a suit, desperately tries to convince the ministers that the disaster is here.

Waters takes two entirely different, though interlinked, approaches to the question of climate catastrophe. His intentions are plain enough: the mighty sound effect that concludes each play is an alarm call rather more urgent than in 2009.