For the second play in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Season at Sheffield Theatres, Duncan Macmillan tackles a question that must be close to many people’s hearts at the moment: whether, in this age of financial collapse and global turmoil, it’s wise to bring a child into the world.
As with the previous play in the season, Nick Payne’s One Day When We Were Young, Lungs is an intimate two-hander staged in the purpose-built 150 capacity auditorium. As such, there’s a lot of pressure on the two leads, Kate O’Flynn and Alistair Cope; the audience are so close they’re almost sitting on top of them and not a gesture nor facial expression can be wasted.
The couple they play, only ever referred to as M and W, are first seen shopping in Ikea where M has just stunned W by asking if she’s ready to have a child. Their relationship then unfolds over a breakneck 90 minutes, with timelines, locations and the various issues between them constantly shifting and colliding. This complex and fast paced approach to structure is a brave one to take, especially since the piece is performed as specified with no props or scenery – just two people talking on a bare stage.
Fortunately Macmillan’s play is both uproariously funny (particularly during the scene in which M and W discuss his ‘animal face’ during sex) and unbearably poignant. There are also various political and environmental issues touched upon; as W says, raising a child has a similar carbon footprint to flying to New York and back every day for seven years (“that’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower” runs one of the many memorable lines).
Director Richard Wilson, following his excellent Sheffield productions of Polly Stenham’s That Face and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, again demonstrates an uncanny knack for getting under the skin of his characters. He keeps the action moving at a frantic pace, and even though things do start to flag about 15 minutes before the end, it is still an impressive achievement to keep attention purely focused on the unbroken dialogue between these two people.
Of the two actors, O’Flynn is particularly impressive as W. She’s onstage for the entire 90 minutes, and runs the full gamut of emotions as W, leaving some audience members with audible sniffles after some of the more emotional scenes. Cope has the less showy role, but is equally adept at fleshing out M. Both M and W are flawed characters – she can be neurotic and slightly irritating at times, whereas he is, frankly, a bit wet – but it’s testament to Macmillian’s skills as a writer and O’Flynn and Cope’s abilities that you end up rooting for them both.
Lungs is an engaging and poignant piece, a play which works wonderfully well ‘in-the-round.’ It whets the appetite for Penelope Skinner’s The Sound Of Heavy Rain, the third and final production in the Roundabout Season, which will unite the cast for both this and One Day When We Were Young.