Steve Waters’ two interweaving plays, On The Beach and Resilience, together known as The Contingency Plan, first saw light of day back in 2009 at the Bush Theatre in London. If the urgency of measures to deal with climate change was a hot topic twelve years ago, they’re off the scale today. Waters has revised the plays to bring them bang up to date – or as up to date as our daily changing political landscape allows – in this brand new production for Sheffield Theatres, directed by Chelsea Walker (On The Beach) and Caroline Steinbeis (Resilience).
We saw both plays on one day – On The Beach first, then Resilience – with a very interesting and informative panel discussion between the plays in the Playhouse including members of the creative team and scientists from the British Antarctic Survey. This helped to give the plays context and added to the sense that, if we don’t do something about it now, it really is too late. From a dramatic point of view, I’d recommend that you should see both plays, as they tell the same story from two very different angles. I also think it makes more dramatic sense if you see Resilience first; both plays end with catastrophe, but the nature of that catastrophe probably has a greater impact if you follow the political activity leading to the personal tragedy, rather than the other way round. On The Beach concentrates on domestic life on the front line of coastal vulnerability, whereas Resilience dwells on the political shenanigans of the COBRA meetings to discuss the imminent dangers. Act One of Resilience takes place the day after Act One of On The Beach; Act Two of both plays takes place at exactly the same time, five months later. Both reach the same conclusion – the inescapability of the disaster to follow. As such, you could say the plays are pretty pessimistic.
No doubt about it, it’s a curious mix, this double play. What it has unquestionably in its favour is that it’s hugely thought-provoking, and you may well be talking for days about it afterwards. It may, indeed, change your life, your priorities, and whatever steps you might take to help save the planet. One of the ways it does this is by offering you the problem in bite-size chunks. You may well not feel able to save the planet – that’s an unbelievably massive task. But you might feel you could do something to help save Norfolk. That’s where the majority of our attention is turned, as elderly eco-warriors Robin and Jenny live a simple, detached, unsophisticated life; growing their own food, brewing their own drinks, eschewing the trappings of modern life like mobile phones and the Internet.
Robin is a retired Antarctic glaciologist who has built a model to show how rising sea levels could cause a watery incursion onto their saltmarsh property; their son Will has just returned from a stint at the British Antarctic Survey, horrified at the change to the environment that he has seen out there, and determined to work directly with the government to alert them of the imminent dangers. Robin is aghast that Will is chucking in the research to work in London – and we learn more about Robin and his past that clouds his judgment of the future. As for those politicians, to what extent are they convinced by the dangers that the scientists’ research presents them, or are they more concerned with playing the electorate and doing what they know will win them votes? And are even the advisers themselves fully committed to revealing the truth, or do they also hold back for fear of aggravating their political masters?
So, a vitally important plot, and a positively thought-provoking piece of work. It’s a little disappointing, then, that there are some difficulties with the plays that hold them back from being a truly gripping dramatic experience. Act One of Resilience is, for example, very wordy. You feel that a lot could be cut or tightened up with the advisers’ dealings with Secretary of State for Resilience, Chris Casson. Some of the lines in both plays come across as rather clunky, and don’t have that recognisable sound of a genuine conversation. The water tank that dominates the stage in On The Beach becomes a burden to the play and staging once its initial use to house the model has been completed. Is it a real tank or is it a symbol of the sea or the storm? If the latter, then why do Will and Sarika say they come from the beach further downstage? If the former, why do Robin and Jenny get inside the tank and splash around? There’s an inconsistency with the way it is incorporated into the action which I feel muddles the story.
Georgia Lowe’s stark, bare, grey, platformy set suggests discomfort; otherwise, it does very little to enhance our appreciation of either location, bringing to mind neither coast nor office; it also makes it virtually impossible for any action to take place upstage. And there are some peculiar vocal inflexions from a couple of the actors: as when, for example, Geraldine Alexander’s Jenny’s line about the birds flying overhead, “must be five-hundred-odd birds”, is spoken as “five hundred odd birds” as if there were something very peculiar about them all.
That aside, the performances are good; there’s a crisp disconnect between Paul Ready’s Casson and Geraldine Alexander’s Tessa that makes for some very ugly but exciting tension; Peter Forbes is excellent in his dual roles as the troubled and brutal Robin and the unsophisticated but sincere Colin; Joe Bannister’s Will and Kiran Landa’s Sarika are full of the enthusiasm of youth with the drive to get their message home, even if that works against their own personal circumstances.
An important, but far from perfect, work given an exuberant, but far from perfect, production! Nevertheless, I’d absolutely recommend it if your climate change complacency needs a kick up the backside – this will certainly provide that.
Production photos by Marc Brenner