The Heretic

Richard Bean
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2011)

The Heretic production photo

The Heretic is the third play with climate change as a main theme to open in the last month, following Greenland and Water. Richard Bean takes an oblique view of today's hottest topic, mixing in with it a quirky sequence of love stories and his trademark humour.

There can be no doubt that Bean is the funniest playwright around. Returning to the scene of his greatest triumph, Harvest, he packs enough outrageously funny jokes into 2¾ hours to compete with the lifetime output of most of his peers. In this he is helped by a fine cast and director Jeremy Herrin, who ensures that every laugh hits its target.

The Heretic is Dr Diane Cassell, an earth sciences professor at a mythical branch of York University, played with just the right combination of gravitas and wit by the ever-reliable Juliet Stevenson.

We witness what becomes her annus horribilis as the likeable academic sees all that she values collapsing even faster than the planet.

This latter-day female Galileo's science causes controversy and disharmony when she begins to theorise that global warming might be to a significant extent the result of observational error rather than an immediate threat. This does not please her boss, a government adviser in his spare time, who is eager to toe the party line at the University in order to hook the generous sponsorship of a global corporate behemoth.

It doesn't help anybody that James Fleet's Kevin has the hots for the woman whom he eventually sacks after her appearance on screen with the real Jeremy Paxman, obviously relishing his fifteen seconds of real Royal Court fame.

On a different level, Diane has problems with her 21-year-old daughter Phoebe. Lydia Wilson gives a memorable performance as an anorexic with a high IQ but low self-esteem.

She is rescued not only by the love of her Mum, painfully but movingly expressed in a moment of maximum distress, but also that of Ben Shotter. He is an envirogeek of the first order, so PC that he is considering giving up breathing - really. Thanks to strong character acting from Johnny Flynn, Ben is seen as a vulnerable and entirely believable creation who could almost be the son of Nigel Planer's Neil in The Young Ones.

While she is clearly an inspirational educator and strong personality, Diane is also a living breathing human being. After the interval, we adjourn from the campus to her isolated home (both attractively designed by Peter McKintosh), where the play becomes, almost simultaneously, a scientific detective story, a haunted house drama and a multiple love story, while retaining the high laugh quotient.

It hardly seems to matter that Richard Bean starts plot lines then forgets about them. He is such a delightful writer that it is easily possible to shed tears of laughter and sadness over different aspects of The Heretic.

Whether his take on global warming will cause controversy, time will tell. What is in no doubt is that anyone who makes the trip to Sloane Square will enjoy a great evening.

Playing until 19 March

Reviewer: Philip Fisher