in the title of Richard Bean's new play is Diane (Juliet Stevenson,) a geophysicist specialising in sea level change. The heresy is her tendency to publicly announce findings which suggest global warming is not being caused by human activity. As we meet her in her office at the university where she teaches, she's just been sent a death threat by a radical environmentalist group. Despite putting a climate change denier at the centre of his play Bean's entire purpose isn't to play devil's advocate, though he does bring up many points about the need for scientific research to be conducted without preconceptions, and how the way statistics are framed can determine what they're made to mean. In fact for the most part he's used the environmental angle to kick off a comedy-drama about Diane's messed-up personal life.
Diane lives with her anorexic daughter Phoebe (Lydia Wilson,) who occasionally visits her mother's office; there she meets Ben (Johnny Flynn,) one of Diane's students whose attempts to eliminate his carbon footprint border on self-harm (which he also does.) As well as this blossoming romance there's one that appears long-dead, as Diane's head of department is Kevin (James Fleet - soon to appear on Being Human
!) with whom she had a brief fling 25 years earlier. In the second act the action moves to her kitchen at Christmas, out in the countryside where the issues that started at work have become personal, and where the death threats feel a lot more real. As you'd expect from the Royal Court the acting is excellent all round with the characters feeling fleshed out; while in one scene Stevenson & co allow themselves to be upstaged by a cuddly toy polar bear. This is also a very funny play full of decent gags; one about a Le Creuset casserole dish had vanessaw
stifling giggles for a couple of minutes afterwards. For some reason it was Ben and Phoebe's idea of flirtation that really tickled me. ("I'm vegetarian." "Well I'm anorexic.") This being a story partly set in a university there's also a couple of digs at cuts to education funding - what really makes Diane a pariah for going off-message is that unpopular opinions could lose the department corporate sponsorship.The Heretic
isn't earth-shattering theatre but it's always enjoyable, with flawed but ultimately likeable characters strongly performed. I wasn't sold on the happy ending though, which is about as close as I've ever seen the Royal Court get to twee.The Heretic
by Richard Bean is booking until the 19th of March at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.