JOE: You do not Frack, Hal, you explore for shale gas. You extract shale gas. You provide shale gas. You use unconventional extraction techniques. You employ enhanced methodology. You use stimulation techniques. You mine non-conventional hydro-carbons. But you do not frack.
HAL: Why not?
JOE: It’s just a terrible word to be associated with. Partly because it’s got that hard aggressive ‘k’ sound in it. As in suck. Muck. Kick. Dick. Stick. Knock. Cock. Nasty in-yer-face k-words. But mainly because it sounds like fuck. And we do not want to sound like fuck, do we?
Thus do we find ourselves in the world of Alistair Beaton’s Fracked! or, Please Don’t Mention the F-Word, a satirical play in which Hal (Michael Simkins), company director and traditional oil man, seeks to frack his way across England’s green and pleasant land.
Joe is, as you might have gathered, a master of spin, a Machiavellian PR man who is more than passingly reminiscent of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker. Despite their shared belief in the transformative power of language, at least in the public sphere, theirs is a private world crammed with compulsive obscenity. If “Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off” was Tucker’s most enduring phrase, Joe makes up in quantity what he lacks in syntactical elasticity: “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Chased by a fucking bull, can you believe it? Fucking outrageous. The fucking thing should be shot. The fucking farmer too. Not to mention Elizabeth fucking Blackwood, and her fucking husband, who set me up, I am sure they set me up.”
Elizabeth fucking Blackwood and her fucking husband are in fact a perfectly lovely, elderly couple living out their quiet, retirement days in the village of Fenton – that is, until Deerland Energy come knocking. While James Bolan’s Jack would happily settle for the quiet life, ex-academic Elizabeth (Anne Reid) is fired into action. Her shrill protests at a local public meeting are caught on camera and go viral: the untrendy ex-teacher trends on Twitter as #Dontfrackwithyourgranny. Accordingly Joe finds in the Emeritus Professor of Medieval History an implacable, placard-waving enemy.
In Beaton’s play binary opposition is everywhere in evidence, a perhaps too neat division but one which suits the satirical outfit. Joe, bouncing like Tigger on the tip of his white plimsolls, pits youth and modernity against age and conservatism. The revolving drum bifurcates the two worlds in swivelling seconds: the sheeny chic of a mortuary white boardroom is suddenly whirled from sight only to be replaced by a cosy rustic retreat.
Presented with a finely chiselled script and two actors at the top of their game, Richard Wilson must surely have had easy work sliding the various well-oiled pieces into place. James Bolan, by now quite stooped with age, is nevertheless deft in his comic delivery, while Anna Reid does sterling work with her character. Steven Roberts manages to inflate his tiny role as the serenely camp waiter into a massive comic performance: his long, slow slide of imperial hauteur between the restaurant table and the exit brings on bellows of laughter. Michael Simkins, meanwhile, is believably bland as the gutless and gullible director, while Tristram Wymark blusters and bloviates as the venal, small-minded business man. More could have been done with the supporting roles, though one wonders if Beaton gives them enough of a hook to hang their meat on.
In Beaton’s Manichean universe, where the evil forces of industry do battle with a few heroic eco-warriors, there’s no doubting which side he sits on. In the programme notes he tells us:
There are of course reasons for the bitterness of the divide. For a start, fracking is likely to have an impact on the beauty of the countryside. It’s also likely to generate huge amounts of traffic. At a deeper level (in every sense) there are issues around the safety of the aquifer, releases of methane gas, and the disposal of vast amounts of water laced with a cocktail of chemicals. And then there’s the biggest issue of all: if we are to stop climate change, doesn’t the carbon have to stay in the ground?”
In his review in The Spectator Lloyd Evans angrily contends that fracking, now in operation across 200 sites, has already proven itself to be a safe, sustainable activity. He also goes on to say that the play’s days are numbered. This was nine months ago and Fracked! is still going strong.
He was wrong about the one. Let’s hope he’s right about the other.