Lungs review – Claire Foy and Matt Smith shine in climate crisis drama

Old Vic, London
Duncan Macmillan’s two-hander is a frenetic portrait of flawed love in a flawed world, exposing the neuroses of a modern couple who struggle to put their principles aside

‘The world is fucked,” says one half of the earnest couple in Lungs, fretting about starting a family on an over-populated planet. Since Duncan Macmillan’s play about modern love and the climate crisis was first staged in 2011, it feels like the world has become even more so. The script’s debates on individual responsibility for saving the planet take on renewed significance amid the rise of public protest and Extinction Rebellion.

The unnamed couple, played magnetically by Claire Foy and Matt Smith, worry about the polar bears and eating imported avocados. Their hand-wringing carries its own middle-class hypocrisies. They angst over the carbon footprint of a prospective baby (“10,000 tonnes of CO2”) and consider planting trees to offset the damage. But they sound like helicopter parents from the minute she gets pregnant. Their neuroses and double standards are gently derided, but the idealism to be “good people” is not undermined altogether.

Foy and Smith perform this two-hander after having honed their chemistry in Netflix series The Crown, and it is an achievement that they are not defined by those roles. These characters are instantly convincing as a trendy young couple arguing in an Ikea queue: she is a PhD student in dungarees and rolled up shirt sleeves, he is a new man in Nike trainers, nodding along to her stridency. Their rat-a-tat repartee of the early scenes is sharp and funny, but frenetic, too, and the drama gathers powers as it slows and introduces silences.

Rob Howell’s set design, like the original, is minimalist to the extreme, empty but for a solar-panelled floor and two tiles on opposite sides propped up by rock crystals – a sly satirical reminder of the couple’s fashionable, new age environmentalism. The bareness on stage forces the actors to do all the work; for Foy and Smith, it allows them to showcase their natural synergy, sometimes with a hint of swagger. But it also works on a metaphorical level in stripping their relationship down to its bones.

Matt Smith and Claire Foy.
Magnetic ... Matt Smith and Claire Foy. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Their existential crisis is as much about sexual politics as it is about the environment. As an enlightened modern couple, they reverse traditional gender relations to some degree: Foy is more dominant, forcing her counterpart into the ancillary role as she monologues about the planet, motherhood and his predatory gaze when they have sex (“Sometimes it looks like you are going to hack off my limbs and bury me in the woods”). Yet she also demands old-style strength and initiative from him.

Smith, for his part, likes her honesty, but is paralysed by it: “I don’t know what you want. I need you to give me some clues.” In this bristling dynamic, they encapsulate the paradoxes of modern masculinity and empowered femininity, enacting its conflicts and contradictions brilliantly in scenes that range from comically bathetic to tender and enraged.

Matthew Warchus’s direction pits them against each other visually to mirror the verbal combat; they stand at opposite ends of the stage or circle each other in gladiatorial fashion when they are scripted to be lying in bed together.

Scenes cut away and change seamlessly so that day turns to night within seconds, a row turns into a sex scene, a breakup into a reunion. Foy and Smith manage the switches of mood and tone with a virtuosity that verges on ostentatious, and there are very few off-moments in pace. It is only the last sequence, in which times speeds up and characters, present and imagined, grow up, age or die within seconds, which feels rushed, gimmicky and riddled with cliche.

The couple’s principles are put to one side when life takes over. Yet the message of this play is not a cynical one. It is simple a picture of flawed love, set in a flawed planet.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lungs: In Camera review – Claire Foy and Matt Smith mix the personal and planetary
In a physically distanced stage production, performed live to a Zoom audience, Duncan Macmillan’s play acquires new pertinence

Chris Wiegand

28, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Claire Foy and Matt Smith to live-stream Lungs in bid to save Old Vic
Tickets will soon go on sale for a ‘socially distanced’ version of 2019 sellout to shore up theatre’s ‘seriously perilous’ finances due to the coronavirus pandemic

Chris Wiegand

27, May, 2020 @10:24 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: [Blank]; Lungs; Vassa – review
Alice Birch searches for hope in the criminal justice system, Claire Foy and Matt Smith bring wit to eco angst, and Siobhan Redmond makes a fine Gorky antiheroine

Susannah Clapp

26, Oct, 2019 @1:59 PM

Article image
From the palace to Ikea: The Crown's Foy and Smith reunite for Old Vic run
Pair to star in two-hander Lungs as theatre also reveals a Beckett double bill with Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

30, Apr, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
'I've threatened to break the rules and kiss her': Claire Foy and Matt Smith on acting in lockdown
They’re separated by a two-metre stick but their chemistry is as strong as ever. The Crown stars on their socially-distanced take on Lungs; lockdown diets and naked drawings

Arifa Akbar

29, Jun, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Crown producers apologise to Claire Foy and Matt Smith over pay dispute
Producers behind Netflix show say they are keen to talk to Time’s Up after a petition called for Smith to donate part of his earnings in response to revelations he was paid more than Claire Foy

Lanre Bakare

20, Mar, 2018 @1:15 PM

Article image
Unreachable review – Matt Smith searches for the magic hour
Matt Smith gives a fine performance, but Anthony Neilson’s movie industry satire is unbalanced by one character’s eruption

Michael Billington

10, Jul, 2016 @10:33 AM

Article image
Endgame review – Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming await a riveting apocalypse
Deftly bringing out the humour in Samuel Beckett’s lines, the two actors bring fresh life to a tale of imminent doom

Mark Lawson

05, Feb, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
A Monster Calls review – adolescent reality meets fairytale fantasy with wit and charm
Sally Cookson delivers an exhilarating production of Patrick Ness’s story about a lonely boy coping with grief, bullying and a monster in a yew tree

Michael Billington

17, Jul, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
Present Laughter review – Andrew Scott dazzles in Coward's classic comedy
Scott is richly funny as a peacocking Peter Pan whose theatrical bohemia is threatened by outsiders

Michael Billington

26, Jun, 2019 @10:10 AM