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The Contingency Plan: On The Beach & Resilience

I suppose what this is about is how you want your science ministers — I mean, do you want it intuitive, passionate, engaged but deeply flawed; or do you want it methodical, exacting and by extension a little slower.— Jenks in Resilience
The Contingency Plan
Robin Soans as Robin from On The Beach
(Photo: Simon Annand)
Steve Waters has written an important pair of plays on climate change which is probably the most significant issue affecting the earth today and which dramatists have not really touched on.

The first play, On The Beach, the title taken from a Neil Young song of 1974 but maybe harking back to Nevil Shute's earlier novel set in a post nuclear world, looks at the family of a Cambridge academic and scientist Robin (Robin Soans) who has become a recluse after his promising scientific career ended with a nervous breakdown in 1974. His son Will (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who followed in his father's career footsteps as a glaciologist, has been leading an investigation into glacial movement in Antarctica, and in this play returns to the family home in Norfolk with his top civil servant and new girlfriend, Sarika (Stephanie Street).

The second play, Resilience, is set in government Whitehall offices. It deals with the potential inundation of a large part of coastline Britain and sees Sarika at work with ministers and government advisors and introduces Will as the new government advisor to maybe replace Colin Jenks (Robin Soans), Robin's colleague of thirty years before and long term expert on climate change.

The plays could stand alone but together they form a powerful discussion of the issues which affect us all. The delight of both is that they brim over with wit as he has a perfect ear for the ridiculous.

As Robin and his wife Jenny (Susan Brown) discuss how their son has been brought up to value enquiry and the almost inevitability that he would be launched on a scientific career, Robin says, "From the start it was clear what he was. This is the lad who classified his toys into organic and inorganic matter." It is Waters' lightness of touch which raises a serious play into a satisfying and entertaining drama. Waters never preaches at us but takes various views and allows us to make up our own mind.

In On The Beach Robin has chosen to live apart from conventional society. With his wife as the only wage earner, they live on land reclaimed from the sea near a salt marsh which is a haven for birdlife. They consume their own vegetables and gather razor clams and sea kale from the beach and heat their home with solar panels. Robin is totally cynical about the role taken by politicians and instead has chosen to lead his isolated life in as carbon neutral a way as possible. He also has come to the conclusion that with global warming and rising sea levels, rather than to build more sea defences or make relatively insignificant efforts at reducing CO2 emissions, the solution will be for people to vacate coastal areas and return the land to the ocean. However Robin's single mindedness is also problematic as he restricts his wife's freedoms. It emerges in the course of the play that Robin's scientific results were covered up by Jenks because the data was not compatible with Jenks' main thrust on the project — the Stability Thesis. Robin has put all his hopes on his son Will disproving the Stability Theory.

Resilience is a very witty political play about Tessa Fortnum (Sarah Brown) the new minister for Resilience, a government buzz word for a policy on coping with flooding and climate change. Tessa's colleague Chris Casson, the minister for Climate Change and school friend of the young blood Tory Prime Minister has risen to power, not because of his intellect but because of whom he knows. There are many light moments where he is lampooned. Jenks sums up the issues facing this government when he says to Tessa, ". . .from now on climate change policy is less about heading off the coming storm and more about weathering its worst effects." This second play sees Sarika at work promoting Will as the new advisor and Will, forced into a suit, becoming the government spokesman on the scientific melt down. Will's list of what needs to be done which starts with these requirements gives some idea of how major are the changes that are required:
"Compulsory purchase of inland areas. Demolish all houses that are not carbon neutral. Convert all of East Anglia to wetland as a protective sump. Carbon rationing universally applied. One car per street. Cease road construction, in fact begin to close roads.".

The performances are splendid. Robin Soans is both Robin, the eccentric hermit who values birdlife more than people and Jenks, the eccentric, pontificating Cambridge don who makes a fabulous entrance in a reflective jacket, with a fold up bike, a helmet with a battery light and clutching a donner kebab for breakfast. Soans' distinctive voice, deep and resonant, dominates his scenes. Geoffrey Streatfeild is quirky and sincere as the young scientist and Stephanie Street is sexy and confident. Susan Brown contrasts in the two plays as the almost downtrodden wife and the feisty, acidic, spinning minister Tessa but David Bark-Jones is truly wonderful as the maladroit, boyish junior minister who cannot put a foot right, whether it's his carbon neutral holiday on the UK mainland in the New Forest (ie not flying) or his mobile conference phone call in the middle of an important meeting when his daughters sing him Happy Birthday!

Set designer Tom Scott's seaside house or the desk in anonymous government offices is simple and functional, but Emma Laxton's sounds create the bird song and the frightening exodus as the birds fly away in On The Beach. A memorable scene in Resilience shows the connectivity of us all, when Jenks illustrates with a giant green string cats cradle, the connectivity of living things, tree to soil to worm to thrush to soil and using scissors to cut the links demonstrates interdependency.

Rarely can serious drama make us laugh whilst at the same time drawing attention to important world issues but Steve Waters has achieved this. The Contingency Plan deserves to have a wider audience than the 81 seat Bush Theatre, maybe as a film or television drama. It could be argued that it should be compulsory for all in politics but it is a real treat seeing both plays live in the intimate space of The Bush which will be celebrating 40 years of groundbreaking theatre next year.

The Contingency Plan: On The Beach and Resilience
Written by Steve Waters
On the Beach directed by Michael Longhurst
Resilience directed by Tamara Harvey

Starring: Robin Soans, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Stepahnie Street, Susan Brown, David Bark-Jones
Design: Tom Scott
Lighting: Oliver Fenwick
Sound: Emma Laxton
Running time: On the BeachTwo hours with an interval; Resilience Two hours 50 minutes

Box Office: 020 8743 5050
Booking to 6th June 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th May 2009 performances at the Bush, Shepherds Bush Green, London W12 (Tube: Shepherds Bush)

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