There’s much that works in Lungs at the Old Vic, but it drags

Let’s get this out of the way upfront: I’ve never seen The Crown. I know that the company of Foy-Smith virgins is hardly an exalted one. Membership is more-or-less restricted to federal prisoners, and those old men in track suits who maintain that there’s been nothing good on television since Only Fools and Horses was canceled. If nothing else, I come to Matthew Warchus’s production of Lungs at the Old Vic with no residual affection for Her Majesty and Prince Phillip clouding my judgement. While Duncan Macmillan’s script offers formal innovation and a few dynamite lines, the static, largely uninflected characters make the eighty-five-minute show drag. 

Claire Foy and Matt Smith play unnamed, thirty-something partners. When the action begins, he has just broached the possibility of having a baby. She reacts like a passenger who has been informed that the plane’s engines have stopped. The remainder of the play charts the pair’s evolving relationship to parenthood. 

There is much here that works. Rob Howell’s bare set—a series of metal panels that stand-in for a café, hospital, and the couple’s flat—brilliantly facilitates the opening joke. “You’re starting this conversation now?” she asks after his initial assay. “In Ikea?” Set and dialogue work together like a tight film shot that suddenly widens to reveal the discussion’s entirely incongruous surroundings.

The script’s lack of scene divisions is also effective. Events that occur over the course of years feel like a single conversation, and a string of “Good morning good evening good morning” aptly communicates the emptiness, of days and relationships, for people in the grip of depression. The dungarees Foy’s character wears throughout underline the infantile elements of her personality, and I felt what is probably an appropriate degree of self-loathing when confronted with her PhD student’s annihilating indecision and hyper-verbosity. 

Verbose she begins, however, and verbose she ends. Appreciable evolution of either character, in the face of some of life’s most significant experiences, is absent. The plot’s intentional circularity underlines the dearth of development, and Foy’s nervous would-be mother is emotionally uninflected; she remains at Red Alert from beginning to end. It is a blessed relief when she finally passes out and her partner can get a word in.

Furthermore, a pregnancy story is akin to an illness narrative; there’s only so many ways it can go. The play’s crisis is easy to anticipate. If Macmillan’s characters were more likeable, or at least multidimensional, the events would elicit more emotional response. 

While Warchus’s production has admirable moments, I was glancing at my watch at the forty-five-minute mark. Foy and Smith have great chemistry. I’ll have to watch The Crown to see it put to good use.

3/5

Lungs is at the Old Vic until 9 November.

Production photography: Helen Maybanks.


Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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