Fracked! Or Please Don’t Use The F-word
by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Richard Wilson
Designer – James Cotteril
The Minerva Theatre
Chichester Festival Theatre
Wednesday 26th July 2016, 14.45
Anne Reid – Elizabeth, a retired professor
James Bolam – Jack, her husband
Oliver Chris – Joe, PR head
Vanessa Emme – Emma, Hal’s PA/ young woman
Andrea Hart – Jenny, a protestor / Lady Mayor
Feddie Meredith – Sam a protestor/ Young Man
Sam Otto – Malik, IT specialist to Joe
Steven Roberts – Waiter / Policeman
Michael Simkins – Hal, MD of Deer;and Energy
Tristram Wymark – Professor Wakeman / Neville, chair of planning committee
Fracked! reflects on why we write theatre reviews, whether in newspapers or blogs. In The Sunday Times last week Christopher Hart wrote a detailed, long, and very entertaining piece (A Fracking Mess) on Fracked! He gave it two stars, but the small Minerva Theatre is SOLD OUT as far as I could see for its short run. That means two things, first why should the producers and cast worry about reviews; and secondly, for me online, that not many people will read this … unless it goes on to the West End. Apart from Shakespeare, “hits” online are often in proportion to the chance of seeing a play, which is why The Globe with plentiful day tickets gets lots of hits and the perpetually sold-out Menier Chocolate Factory far fewer. The Minerva at Chichester sells out quickly.
Fracking is the theme. As we know … It’s great for the country as long as it happens somewhere else. I’m sympathetic to the theme of the retired protestors, Elizabeth and Jack (Anne Reid & James Bolam). A few years ago I sat in a residents planning meeting with the council in Poole. One man was protesting that a new development would eradicate the privacy of his garden and main rooms. The planning officer blithely said, ‘I can’t see the problem. Plant a laurel hedge. In ten or twelve years, you’ll have your privacy back.” The man stared at him, “I’m 79,” he said.
The reviews also claim that fracking is of special interest to a Chichester audience, as Chichester is a potential fracking area. I smirked at the quaint assumption that the population of Chichester are avid theatre goers with a frequency to exceed Jacobean London. It is a major regional theatre, the best one south of London. We came from Poole, we spoke last time to people from Brighton and London. As we come from Poole, I’ll add that I used to get irate about fracking, until I discovered that Wytch Farm on the edge of Poole Harbour is the UK’s largest onshore oil well, and that they’ve been using a form of hydraulic fracking for decades … work began in 1974. I will say we have had a few batches of disturbed nights over the last few years from low booms from out in Poole Bay, which I thought was exploration or the naval gunnery ranges in Dorset, but maybe it was fracking.
It’s quite a cast. Oliver Chris was in King Charles III as Prince William, and the in original One Man Two Guv’nors. James Bolam is of course the Likely Lad and we have seen him on stage a couple of times before, but most interesting for me is Michael Simkins. I read most of his book The Rules of Acting out loud to my companion. Highly recommended and very funny. Anne Reid is a voice we know best of all. She was Wendolene in Wallace & Gromit: A Close Shave. We wrote the English Language Teaching version for OUP, and had to write new dialogue to match existing mouth movements, so we knew Wendolene frame-by-frame over several weeks, and then she re-voiced it for our version. That was the scene I used to promote the series.
Emma (Vanessa Emme), Hal (MD) (Michael Simkin), Joe (Oliver Chris), Malik (Sam Otto)
The story centres on Deerland Energy’s efforts to get permission to frack in the village of Fenstock, and the efforts of retired academic Elizabeth to stop them.
The revolve stage has two halves. First is the bright modern corporate side (which includes lights along the stage platform). This is the hard surfaced town hall meeting, the glass walled offices of the PR company, and the posh restaurant where Joe persuades / corrupts Neville, the chairman of the planning committee (in an incident that most builders I know would take as read).
Then the revolve is Elizabeth and Jack’s timbered ceiling cottage kitchen with dark green Aga, tiled wall, comfy sofa and chair. The two sets revolve frequently with voice overs and video screens covering the revolve, during which furniture in front of the revolve is constantly set and reset … rather like First Light in the same theatre, a triumph of stage management.
Joe (Oliver Chris), Jack (James Bolam), Elizabeth (Anne Reid)
The reviewers feel a problem with the hard bright fuck this / fuck that world of 21st century political satire revolving through 180 degrees to the warm comfy 70s and 80s sitcom world of the cottage. But this is surely the whole point. They play the two parts differently too. After all, it is directed by Richard Wilson, who starred as Victor Meldrew in the ultimate “retiree sitcom” One Foot In The Grave so it is assured territory, and Jack’s irascible complaints about modern life (though less sclerotic than Victor Meldrew) have a familiar ring.
On the way home, we said, they may have been called stereotypes (as they were in some reviews), but we can think of a real-life parallel to every one of them. Anne Reid’s Elizabeth is totally credible as a reluctantly politicized woman. James Bolam as her bumbling husband, more interested in gardening than protest, shows that years of practice has given him sublime comic timing. His lines may be clichéd (and that’s deliberate, I felt) but the delivery is perfectly weighted and timed. He gets all computer stuff wrong … he thinks a video may go “vital” on YouTube.
Oliver Chris as Joe.
In corporate world, Oliver Chris as head of PR has a fabulous part – great lines, and a perfectly executed absolute bastard. Beaton describes him as ‘a man of dazzling charisma and zero morals.’ As he says:
Joe: Ah, but we deliver. We’ve handled the accounts of two dictators, three bankers, one armaments company and Tony Blair. They all came up smelling of roses. Well, maybe not Tony Blair. Even PR has its limits.
Michael Simkins is Hal, the old school managing director. He is gently offended by Joe’s effing and blinding. It’s all gone past him but he’s still in charge. A nuanced and subtle performance. Emma his PA tries to hold him to the agenda. Malik is the waiting, watching IT specialist who turns the whole plot at the end.
Jenny (Andrea Hart), Jack (James Bolam), Elizabeth (Anne Reid), Sam (Freddie Meredith)
The protestors, friends of Elizabeth, are middle-aged Jenny with her 22 year old green-haired pagan vegan boyfriend, Sam. At first I thought Sam was a little too obviously drawn … but Freddie Merdedith made the role work.
The main criticism has been that it’s one sided and polemic, and giving the “baddies” at least a couple of reasonable justifications for fracking would enrich it. Even The Guardian found it one-sided, though gave it four stars (perhaps while one-sided, it was “the right side” for Guardian readers). The Sunday Times review took issue over the science, but I suspect Mr Hart was so angry about the issues that he stopped listening. He says “Elizabeth turns out to be a retired academic – in what subject we never learn, though probably not on the hard-science side.” The text was perfectly clear to us … she was an Emeritus Professor, Medieval History, Durham. I heard it. Lest you think it was added after his review, I bought the playscript. See page 17. This is why she is so exercised at the beginning by the presence of Professor Wakeman on the panel proposing tracking. He is an academic who has “sold out” to the energy companies.
Elizabeth’s closing speech (Anne Reid)
It is true that Elizabeth’s final speech is just about “on behalf of the Green Party.” Except that Anne Reid is far more convincing than the average green speaker. How you take that depends on your attitude to scientific “experts.” Reviews get argumentative about fracking … in the play Deerland Energy are polluting the River Trent (from their other site in Scunthorpe) with toxic waste, or non-hazardous chemicals as Joe calls them, and radioactive water. According to Mr Hart in the Sunday Times, the radioactivity from fracking is that of a potato chip or a cup of tea. However, the play is NOT about fracking. Fracking is a vehicle or metaphor for business manipulating the public, about democracy, about power and protest and corruption. You can substitute phone masts, wind farms, waste dumps, nuclear power stations, sewage farms … or whatever worries the public. So it’s a play about local democracy, rather than a play actually “about” fracking.
… let me tell you a story. A few years ago, a major mobile phone company applied to erect a mobile phone tower (badly disguised as a pine tree) in our road. It was a few feet from neighbours’ kids’ bedroom windows. We all protested, as we all had landlines, and the only people objecting to poor signals were builders and developers … everything in our area of Poole was being demolished and replaced. At the planning meeting Fry Your Brains Phones PLC (I’ve changed the name to protect the guilty) put up a scientific expert to “prove” mobile phone radiation was harmless. The Head of Planning supported this view. I was one of those speaking against it. At the end, I had one minute. I said, “If these phone masts are so harmless, the answer is simple. Let’s place the phone mast on top of the town hall, preferably above the planning department.” The Head of Planning replied (in fury) “We can’t do that … what about the health and safety of town hall employees!” We sat back with a smile. Then the committee voted unanimously to reject the application. The Head of Planning was indeed hoist with his own petard.
Neville, head of planning committee (Tristram Wymark), Waiter (Steven Roberts), Joe (Oliver Chris) – a hilarious script in the restaurant
In the end, it left us resolved to find out more about the millions of gallons of clean water used in fracking, water that re-emerges contaminated from the process. I have read the reverse opinions. I have no conclusion, though I believe our local one uses sea water rather than fresh water, which just means it’s more dilute in the end … but why should we believe anything these people tell us? That’s the message.
Being a NIMBY is fair enough if you only have one back yard … Joe has two, one in Cameron territory Oxfordshire and one in Covent Garden. The other point refers to my 79 year old at the planning meeting. Telling someone in their late 70s that the construction traffic will only disturb them for 5 to 10 years is not persuasive. They’re settled. They don’t want to move. That five years may well be all they have left.
The comedy has been kept right up to date … jokes about Brexit (now we don’t have to worry about human rights, says Joe), and Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.
I thought the anti- reviews harsh. As so often, I find myself agreeing with Mr Billington’s four stars.
ON THE DAY …
Both halves of the play had to be stopped separately when audience members were taken ill. I’ve seen this at Bath, Chichester and the RSC, and it happens especially at matinees, but I’ve never seen an actor deal with it as well as Oliver Chris. In the first half he carried on texting intently on his phone in character.. Everyone else stayed in character too. In the second half he stayed motionless holding his smile a clear two minutes, before zapping back into the script. Er, better than David Tennant in the same situation.
THE PROGRAMME / THE DEBATE
The programme has three important essays, first by Alistair Beaton, then an anti-fracking one by David Smythe and a pro-fracking one by Dick Selley. That’s even-handed and commendable.
The pro-tracking essay says Wytch Farm is 80 km west of Chichester. It might be as the crow flies. I know scientists prefer kilometres, but in addressing a British audience, I’d use miles … and I’m a fervent “Remain” believer too. So 49 miles. My house to Chichester by road is 67 miles, and I’d say Wytch Farm is about seven miles away from me in a line across water. So to me nearer 120 km. Then he says the oil field lies “beneath the Sand Banks estate that contains some of the most expensive UK properties.” There is no such entity. The area where Wytch Farm lies with its outlying drill heads is on what used to the Bankes Estate of Corfe Castle. Sandbanks (one word), though close enough to have pipes below is merely a coincidental name, because sand banked up there … i.e. it was sand dunes. The Bankes Estate now belongs to … the National Trust. A much more interesting connection. Sandbanks and expensive properties is a strong collocation in the news (due to clever manipulation by local developers), but over on the heathland beyond Wareham where the drilling takes place, property values bear no relation whatsoever. So poor research on the history and geography, but we have to trust him on the science. Perhaps the research skills of a professor of medieval history like Elizabeth would have been useful.
* * * *
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY
Michael Billington, Guardian * * * *
Dominic Maxwell, The Times * * *
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, * * *
Susannah Clapp, Observer * * *
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times * *
Bella Todd, The Stage * *
RICHARD WILSON (as an actor)
A Little Hotel On The Side by Georges Feydeau Bath Theatre Royal, 2013
Hay Fever by Noel Coward, Bath Theatre Royal