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Review Round-up: Critics Warm to Heretic

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Plays about climate change are like buses. Following hot on the heels of the National’s Greenland comes Richard Bean’s The Heretic at the Royal Court, examining the other side of the great global warming debate.

The play, which opened last week (10 February 2011, previews from 4 February), stars Olivier Award-winning actress Juliet Stevenson as Dr Diane Cassell, a leading academic vilified for being at odds with the fervent believers that climate change is man-made.

She is joined in the cast by James Fleet, Johnny Flynn, Adrian Hood, Leah Whitaker and Lydia Wilson, while the Royal Court's deputy artistic director Jeremy Herrin directs. The Heretic continues until 19 March 2011.

Michael Coveney

"Suddenly, I feel a climate change coming on: The Heretic, Richard Bean’s entertaining new play, picks up on the dreadful slack left behind by Greenland at the National and delivers a very funny, topical new take on earth sciences, which have come into their own as a subject in universities after the blah-blah years of psychology and media studies. The heretic in question is Juliet Stevenson’s self-contradictory, self-deprecating Dr Diane Cassell … Diane, who’s been studying sea-levels in the Maldives, is at the centre of another spider’s web involving her grungy Greenpeace activist, anorexic daughter Phoebe (Lydia Wilson, following through strongly from Blasted at the Lyric, Hammersmith) and her brilliant new flaky, self-harming student Ben (Johnny Flynn) … Mr Bean makes mighty fine jokes all along the way - I like Ben’s idea of the perfect bloke-ish death being extravagant suicide on Top Gear - and Stevenson glows like an agreeable firebrand all night, reminding us how rare is her onstage mix of intellectual probity and heart-breaking concern.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

“I caught a glimpse of the playwright Richard Bean at the premiere of Greenland and thought he was wearing a slightly smug smile on his face. Now I know why. His own play about climate change, <The Heretic, proves an absolute corker, funny, provocative and touching, and absolutely resolute in its refusal to lapse into the apocalyptic gloom that usually attends this subject. What makes this even more remarkable is that it stars Juliet Stevenson … she is often in wonderfully funny, sarky form as Dr Diane Cassell, an earth sciences lecturer at a northern university who is - and I can hardly describe the feeling of relief when one first discovers this - a climate change sceptic. … Stevenson is clearly having a ball as the sceptical scientist, delivering put-downs with great aplomb, but also becoming genuinely moving in her care for her troubled daughter, played with sparky attack by Lydia WilsonJeremy Herrin’s production is blessed with an infectious exuberance, and it is great to see the Court putting on a play which will vastly offend a large section of its audience.”

Susannah Clapp

“Richard Bean's new play is – hurrah! – the opposite of what we've come to expect from the climate-change dramas washing over the stage: the opposite of what we had last week from Greenland and, earlier, from Earthquakes in London. It's a tsunami of jokes, a meltdown of piety and po-facedness; it has at its centre an unexpected heroine: a concerned scientist who is seen by her fellow academics as a climate-change sceptic … Jeremy Herrin's trim production doesn't attempt to visualise climate change: this is a play about the debate rather than the events that inspired argument. Greenland gave us a full-size elegantly ambling polar bear; The Heretic gives us a stuffed toy called Maureen … James Fleet and Johnny Flynn are particularly strong; what's especially pleasing is the combination of unremitting intelligence with unremitting laughs. The Heretic makes most plays look underwritten.”

Michael Billington

"Climate change drama is the new growth industry. But, while the National's Greenland is entirely issue-driven, Richard Bean's new play uses characters to explore ideas. The result is provocative, funny, contrarian and stimulating. It is also overlong; by the end of three hours, you feel Bean has not so much lost the plot as provided almost too much of it … I found the first half of Bean's play pugnacious and entertaining. He is good on the dangers of heterodox thinking, the absurdity of academic bureaucracy, and the problems of treating climate change as a quasi-religion … Having raised a host of big issues in the first half, he loses sight of them in the second … What starts as a mordant satire ends in a warm glow of humanist sentiment. Even if Bean bombards us with incident, Jeremy Herrin's production keeps us watching. Juliet Stevenson brings a crisp intelligence, a steely wit, and just the right hint of inflexibility to her portrayal of the science-driven Diane.”

Libby Purves
The Times

Richard Bean’s painfully witty play will annoy some, but even believers may enjoy briefly cocking a snook at the Monbiotocracy … The first act is one of the sharpest, funniest, most engaging hours you could spend … Jeremy Herrin directs elegantly and Stevenson is a marvel, managing to contain her innumerable witty lines within a warmly believable, brittle character (not easy: Bean’s addiction to jokes could scupper a lesser actor) … The problem with the second act is that away from the university setting it turns into a family sit-com with thrillerish overtones. The daughter’s anorexia and the academics’ chemistry dominate, with only a frenzied interlude of hacking into a rival university’s tree-ring data to remind us what the play was about in the first place. It remains amusing and engrossing, but it does fade a bit. Which is a shame. A few tweaks and it could follow the Court’s other successes a long way.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Richard Bean's delicious new play has been billed as a controversial view of climate change, but while it has some intriguing things to say about environmentalism it's at heart a romantic comedy, larded with excellent jokes and peppery satire … Pulsing with shrewd humour, it's risqué and linguistically rich. There are some blissfully surreal touches, such as an explanation of cognitive dissonance that involves Gary Glitter, and a hilarious sequence in which Diane is advised during a disciplinary meeting by a cuddly toy polar bear called Maureen … The first half is brilliant. In the second some themes are underdeveloped, and the play mutates into a townies-in-the-sticks thriller. The ending is rather cluttered with incident, and there are a couple of twists that don't fully convince. Yet The Heretic is clever, imaginative and entertaining theatre.”

Paul Taylor

"The National Theatre's current extravaganza about climate change, Greenland, shows the drawbacks of trying to write a play by committee (there are four authors involved). In contrast, The Heretic, the Royal Court's first foray into this theatrically tricky subject, has been produced on his tod by Richard Bean, one of our drama's most wittily maverick voices … As it keeps the great one-liners whizzing and the scientific arguments airborne, Jeremy Herrin's extremely engaging production lets it gradually steal over you that this is principally a play about love … Nothing is resolved intellectually, nor is it clear whether Ben admires Diane, to an extent, because she is a stubborn individualist or because he thinks she is right … Where does that leave the science, though? Rather obscured at the end in the golden haze of humanist uplift.”


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