The Heretic

Richard Bean
Library Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford

Ciaran Kellgren (Ben), Sophie Robinson (Phoebe), Stuart Fox (Kevin), and Cate Hamer (Diane) Credit: Gerry Murray
Stuart Fox (Kevin) Credit: Gerry Murray
Cate Hamer (Diane) Credit: Gerry Murray

After the phenomenal success of his One Man, Two Guvnors all over the world, as well as in Manchester, the Library Theatre looks to playwright Richard Bean to open its new season with a play set in the earth sciences department of York University in the office of climate change sceptic—or perhaps "climate change denier", depending on your perspective—Dr Diane Cassell.

Bean puts together a great bunch of diverse characters, ideal for creating some good drama and comedy when they collide. Diane has a 21-year-old anorexic daughter Phoebe, always ready with a witty put-down for her mother; new student Ben Shotter has a background with environmental activist groups; college security guard Geoff has a vigorous attitude towards "being green" from turning off lights to trying to persuade Dr Cassell to have her Jaguar converted to run on LPG; Professor Kevin Maloney is Diane's ex-lover and her "line manager", responsible for maintaining the reputation of the department.

The first act is set in Diane's office. In tutorials with Ben, she tries to get him to apply the scientific method to the issues he believes in rather than selective, emotion-led version of the facts from activist groups, politicians and the press, but he is so obsessed with doing the "right" thing that his conscience won't let him eat or travel. A sinister note in the background is a series of death threats left on Diane's windscreen over her claims that the global temperature is not rising significantly due to human activity.

When she goes on the Today programme on Radio 4—shown in a film clip with John Humphreys—to reject claims that the sea level is rising in the Maldives without authority from the College, she is suspended from her post.

Act two moves the story to Diane's house at Christmas. Ben turns up due to a bit of matchmaking by Diane with him and Phoebe, welcomed by them both, and Kevin turns up with a plant as a peace offering after his wife has left him. Ben, however, has something to offer: evidence that a scientist who has published a paper in Nature about climate change but who wouldn't release his data has based his findings on rather flimsy evidence.

This is an intelligently-written comedy that has well-aimed digs at higher education, misuse of data by interest groups and politicians, the token changes that people make to demonstrate their concern for global warming and the lack of scientific rigour in many of the arguments. However while defending strongly the scientific method—laudable in itself in the face of willing scientific ignorance from politicians and the public—he doesn't apply it to the arguments in the play, which are rather sketchily-drawn and one-sided. Bean says in the programme that he is waiting for "incontrovertible evidence" of global warming, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of scientific evidence.

I assume the incident over the article is related to the hacking of the e-mails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in 2009, which climate change sceptics claimed showed a conspiracy and manipulation of findings but were found after investigation to show nothing of the sort. But even if there had been anything in the allegations, Bean's case studies are all fictional and so don't add anything to the real-world arguments.

But while the play adds nothing to the scientific or the political debates, it does raise some interesting issues and is very funny and entertaining throughout. Bean is very good at intelligently witty dialogue, which is scattered liberally throughout his script, and Chris Honer's production is perfectly paced to get the most out of the humour. There is an odd near-tragedy towards the end that seems a little incongruous but doesn't take anything away from the rest of the play.

There are perfectly-measured performances too from all of the cast. Stuart Fox is perfect as the smooth but well-meaning Professor Maloney, Ciaran Kellgren is the gorky but almost loveable teenager Ben, Cate Hamer is solidly opinionated but with a very good Socratic method of instruction, Sophie Robinson plays the irritating daughter very well and Andrew Westfield delivers some dryly witty lines very well, especially when he describes his job as "facilitating excellence" (the College has adopted that meaningless cliché "centre of excellence").

The cast is completed by Polly Lister as a suitably pompous human resources officer (although I hardly saw her at all where I was sat) and Aaron Neil as the Maldives High Commissioner on film with the real John Humphreys.

Despite reservations about the unscientific presentation of science, this is actually a stimulating and very entertaining piece full of very funny lines and intelligent dialogue delivered perfectly by a great cast and is definitely recommended.

Reviewer: David Chadderton