'Lungs' review or 'Who are you telling to breathe deeply?'

Lungs, Duncan Macmillan
Roundabout at Southbank, 8th July 2015

Duncan Macmillan is a very smart writer. This is the man (along with Robert Icke) behind the eerily intelligent adaptation of ‘1984’ that dazzled audiences at The Almeida. We know that Duncan Macmillan is smart. But the most important thing about Macmillan is that he writes with so much heart. I can’t tell you how rare this is. So many plays glisten and shine and impress – but there is a humility and openness to Macmillan’s writing, a willingness to start small in order to reach the crucial bits that make us tick, that can catch you unaware. If you’re feeling at all vulnerable, his are the plays that will break your heart – and none more so than ‘Lungs’.

This initially feels like quite a small play in quite a small space (the transportable pop-up Roundabout theatre). There are very few special effects and precious little set; designer Lucy Osbourne understands that ‘Lungs’ is all about how conversation shapes our world and not the other way round. There are just two actors in the play and they spend all their time talking, talking, talking.  At first, then, ‘Lungs’ feels like quite a self-contained piece. Hell, it even kicks off with a squabble in Ikea. But ever so slowly and subtly, ‘Lung’s grows into something large, elemental – amazing.  

Director George Perrin modulates his production beautifully and isn’t afraid to hold back. The actors - Abdul Salis as ‘M’ and Sian Reese-Williams as his girlfriend ‘W’ – are initially ever so slightly one-note. ‘W’ is relentlessly manic and ‘M’ is bemused and composed. It’s not that the acting is na├»ve – anything but - it’s just that these characters are at the beginning of their journey. They have an awful lot of life left to live, edges to sand down, deep-held beliefs still to shatter right down the centre.

The opening stages are motored through and they are exhilarating and funny and brilliantly observed. ‘M’ suggests to ‘W’ that they have a baby and unleashes a monster in his girlfriend; a very, very funny monster. ‘W’ is shocked (‘It’s like you just punched me in the face and asked me a maths question’) and, as she thinks through her panic, all her fears and dreams, prejudices and concerns, come tumbling out. What right do they have to people a world that is already critically over-populated? What about adoption? And how do they make sex sacred – somehow start as they mean to go on for this child – when all they’ve been doing until now is simply shagging?  

These early scenes are packed with glittering details that make this barrage of words (and the actors really race through the text) somehow stick and feel real. The two despair of their ‘aerosol spraying’ and ‘avocado importing’ ways and reassure themselves that they are smart, ‘good’ people. Tiny phrases zing with meaning. It doesn’t take long before the two are discussing harp lessons for their imagined-kid and just that one little detail shows us everything this couple’s life might become.

So far, so very funny - but gradually the structure begins to warp and snap and time and space start to function in strange new ways. As the couple wait for the results of a pregnancy test, those three minutes play out in a real-time and tick-tock on for a lifetime. When tragedy hits the couple and ‘W’ is broken by it, the dialogue tumbles over itself: ‘Goodnight, good morning, Good night’ says ‘M’, as time itself is subsumed by all that pain.

All the actions contained within this piece – such as when the couple share breakfast– are folded into the ‘main’ dialogue so that they slide by unnoticed. It’s really quite odd. So, as M and W talk about their child’s future phrases like ‘do you want some?’ are slid in between the main conversation. All those actions we carry out every day – all that eating and walking and hugging – is suffocated by the text. That’s just the stuff that plugs the gaps in between the conversations that will decide what and where and who we’re eating with for the rest of our bleeding lives.

As this couple’s life judders forward, time does some very funny things. Months and years slide by and we do not need to see them. When M and W are re-united, M admits that life without W is a life without thinking. The only time that he is in the present, M confesses, is when he is in the presence of ‘W’. The rest of life is just a blur. We flick through the memories of our own life and think of all those blurry days now long-forgotten – and then we remember, with a smile, those precious hours – or even seconds – that are filled with love and meaning and seem to last a lifetime.


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