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Lungs by Duncan Macmillan at The Old Vic Theatre | Review

Lungs: Claire Foy and Matt Smith - Photo by Helen Maybanks
Lungs: Claire Foy and Matt Smith – Photo by Helen Maybanks

One act, two hander, no costume changes, and a dialogue that more often than not goes at a breakneck pace. It’s the sort of play that one might expect to see at the Edinburgh Fringe (or, perhaps, for those who don’t ‘do’ the Fringe, the Vault Festival). And Lungs is an intimate piece of theatre in more ways than one, but it works quite brilliantly in a seating arrangement at the Old Vic that includes ‘stage seating’. The not-quite ‘in the round’ layout leaves the two nameless characters (Claire Foy and Matt Smith) exposed whichever way they turn.

The set comprises what to me looked like a floor of solar panels – bizarre, but in keeping with this couple’s environmental consciences. Their discussion – sorry, ‘conversation’ – about green issues could, in itself, have been the focus of Duncan Macmillan’s play, which somehow manages to cover a lot of ground across various topics and themes without leaving the audience exhausted. At least part of this is achieved by the mutual understanding that arises between both parties who, despite outward frustrations about not being crystal clear about what the other person wants or needs at any given point, comprehend each other better than they give themselves credit for.

It is, of course, the differences of opinion that make for good theatre, as does the utter frankness of the characters who, in private conversation, need not mind their manners. These heart-to-heart exchanges are of the kind that only those who know each other deeply and intensely would have. The dialogue is incredibly naturalistic, complete with unfinished sentences and struggles to find the right term to describe (for instance) an emotion or a state of mind.

Foy and Smith’s characters thus say something before immediately thereafter retracting it, or otherwise think through what has just been said and confirm that yes, they said what they meant, and they meant what they said. The press night audience, discerning and assuming as it was, let out a collective gasp towards the end of the performance, and even then, the plot twists kept landing. As Foy’s character said earlier on in the play, “It’s like you punched me in the face, then asked me a maths question.” Was there a happy ending? Well, I couldn’t possibly say.

Foy and Smith are perfectly cast – not even having seen a single episode of the Netflix series The Crown I can nonetheless see why they are held in such high regard by their many fans and followers. With only minimal sound effects throughout, the audience is engaged and captivated in their story and the decision-making processes involved as they consider whether their futures on both a global and personal level. Foy’s character is strangely loveable, in that she rarely stops talking, constantly relating her own circumstances (or potential future circumstances) to the world at large. Almost any other motormouth would be at least a little irritating eventually. Not her. Smith, too, is compelling, displaying an equally varied range of emotions from euphoria to despair and practically everything in between.

There’s a lot to consider in this production. The duo affirm they are “good people”. What does that actually mean? Are they the best people to judge themselves to be good? Or are they just affirming and encouraging one another? Amongst the weighing up of the imponderables of modern living is some laugh-out-loud humour. The script and staging are skilled enough to shift from one scene to the next quite instantaneously. Yes, it’s a little contrived, and I’m still in two minds as to whether the last scene really needed to be so ‘final’ – perhaps a more open-ended finish may have been more poignant. But that is more than outweighed by these strong and assured performances.

Refreshingly honest, this raw, fascinating and convincing production is 83 minutes of theatrical excellence of the highest order.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child. Ten thousand tonnes of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower

The ice caps are melting, there’s overpopulation, political unrest; everything’s going to hell in a handcart – why on earth would someone bring a baby into this world?

Directed by Matthew Warchus, Claire Foy and Matt Smith perform in Duncan Macmillan’s hilarious emotional rollercoaster of a play about a couple wrestling with life’s biggest dilemmas.

Cast: Claire Foy and Matt Smith

Writer – Duncan Macmillan
Director – Matthew Warchus
Set & Costume – Rob Howell
Lighting – Tim Lutkin
Sound – Simon Baker
Associate Director – Katy Rudd

Book Tickets for The Old Vic Theatre


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