To describe Steve Waters’ double bill of climate-crisis plays as timely is as much an indictment of those in power as it is a comment on the playwright’s prescience. First written in 2009 – when few theatre-makers were addressing this subject – The Contingency Plan has not dimmed in relevance. Governments continue to act too slowly, while the urgency of the situation has accelerated. What was once speculative drama feels frighteningly current.
Waters’ scripts have been revised and updated, complete with references to Covid, net zero and Jacob Rees-Mogg. But the basic structure of the pair of plays remains unchanged. In On the Beach, glaciologist Will visits his parents in their isolated home on the Norfolk coast, accompanied by his civil servant girlfriend Sarika. Years after his father Robin mysteriously abandoned his own research, Will is back from Antarctica with devastating findings. Resilience, the other half of the double bill, sees Will taking his knowledge to the heart of government and reckoning with the responsibilities and limitations of being a scientific adviser. As disaster looms, Will must try to shake ministers out of their fatal inaction.
The two plays (directed by Chelsea Walker and Caroline Steinbeis respectively) share a cast and a set, with both beachfront and Whitehall being evoked by the overlapping grey slabs of Georgia Lowe’s design. These imposing blocks equally suggest the majesty of the natural world – marvelled at by Robin and his wife Jenny from their secluded home – and the manmade fortress of government. In the centre of the space is a transparent box that doubles as table and water tank, acting as a microcosm for the catastrophic flooding that Will’s research predicts.
One of the great problems with communicating climate crisis is its scale. We struggle to comprehend complex global systems and how they are interwoven with our day-to-day lives. Waters conveys some of the science and the politics while connecting this to human drama. In doing so, he poses questions that remain pertinent, asking about the role of science and scientists, the merits of opting out versus trying to change things from within, and the possibility of speaking truth to power.
However, characters play second fiddle to ideas. It’s often hard to puzzle out the motivations of these people, whose decisions seem engineered for the purposes of debate. The character of Robin is a conundrum. He’s a scientist whose faith in science seems to oscillate, while his disillusionment with politicians has translated into a stark cynicism about the entire human species. The politicians themselves make no more sense. Brexity Tessa is a stereotype of the Tory right who is bafflingly won round by Will’s radical policy ideas. And while Paul Ready is entertaining as fellow minister Chris, it remains unclear why he rapidly takes a shine to Will and just as quickly tries to drop him.
The most compelling figure is Will, Waters’ hero of sorts, sensitively played by Joe Bannister. It’s easy to believe that this is someone more accustomed to the company of ice than other humans, suddenly thrust into public life by the urgency of his findings. It’s his passionate outbursts, along with the startling intrusion of the elements on to the stage, that break through most effectively. As Will puts it when outlining the changes needed to mitigate and adapt to climate crisis: “It has to be as simple and as radical as that.”
• The Contingency Plan runs at Sheffield Theatres until 5 November.