Fracked! or please don't use the f-word

Alistair Beaton
Jonathan Church for Chichester Festival
Festival Theatre, Malvern

Anne Reid as campaigner Elizabeth Credit: Catherine Ashmore, Chichester Festival
Because we care? Michael Simkins as Hal, and Harry Hadden-Paton as PR man Joe Credit: Catherine Ashmore, Chichester Festival
Elizabeth and Jack (James Bolam) with protestors Jenny (Andrea Hart) and Sam (Freddie Meredith) Credit: Catherine Ashmore, Chichester Festival

When it comes to parish council versus oil company, there can only be one winner. I’m speaking morally of course, or morally theatrically at least, especially when the former has the redoubtable Anne Reid on its side.

Alistair Beaton’s play is not the farce that its title and publicity might suggest, but more an amusing satire on capital and politics, a fact-founded eco-comedy that purports to give both sides of the argument about fracking, but which ends with Reid’s Elizabeth urging the audience to join direct action against the process.

With the industry represented by a well-intentioned but singularly weak executive Hal (Michael Simkins) and his serpentine PR man Joe (Harry Hadden-Paton), this was never going to be a fair contest in the moral maze, but the piece offers enough anecdotal evidence at least to question easy denials of environmental damage from the process.

Deerland Energy’s bid to drill in the quiet village of Fenstock depends on the vote of corrupt councillor Neville (Tristram Wymark)—a figure I don’t recognise—who is bribed by the charming, cynical, unprincipled PR man—a figure I do.

The company’s video, Elgar, butterflies, “because we care”, might well be retitled “because we can” and later, as problems come to light, changes to a message about keeping the lights on. Indeed, at one unscheduled moment, the lights in Elizabeth’s country cottage, Aga-fired kitchen flicker as if on cue from Deerland.

Joe, ex-guru to dictators, paedophile celebs and gun-runners, is quick to point out the true cost of foreign travel or strawberries in December. Dig deeper and he tells a cynical tale a bottle of mineral water from the Solomon Islands. This unnecessary trade comes about because it makes people rich, he says, and who makes the plastic bottles? Oil companies.

Burying protests so they disappear on Google? He’s your man. Is this ethical, is not a question he understands.

No-one does tight-lipped indignation better than Reid, retired ancient history lecturer who rises from sedentary objector to Twitter trend-setter #don’tfrackwithyourgranny after a public meeting at which she accuses a tame professor of accepting oil company bribes.

James Bolam is a great comic foil as her loving, but increasingly exasperated husband Jack, exasperated both by his wife's involvement and with the gentrification of the village where aromatherapists have replaced bus, shop and post office, and the once proper pub now serves “twice-baked goat cheese soufflé … on a slate!

The play, directed by One Foot in the Grave Richard Wilson, is great fun on one level. On another, could it really happen that 800,000 gallons of radioactive waste water from fracking could be dumped in the River Trent? I don’t know. But it’s got me worried.

Reviewer: Colin Davison