It’s not easy being green. You know all the warnings about oil and gas running out but you don’t want some new energy company drilling for shale gas in the picturesque South Downs – or Scunthorpe.
Alistair Beaton’s new comedy, Fracked! (or: Please Don’t use the F-Word) opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre tonight and it hit a few raw nerves.
There were a couple of lady protesters outside the venue urging people to attend a public meeting later in the year to hear about health issues surrounding fracking, or to give it its proper title, hydraulic fracturing.
Inside the theatre we had a celebrity heckler in the audience plus a couple of wet-behind-the-ears journos hoping for an exclusive. It was, for a moment, difficult to tell if life was imitating art or vice versa until we realised that the lone voice of protest came from the show’s star Anne Reid.
Fracking is highly contentious in Sussex. It’s one of the most glorious counties we have and it’s in danger of being turned into..well..Philadelphia where, we learned tonight, the landscape has been left horrifically scarred by the fracking industry.
So where better to premiere the play? But, actually, it’s so good that it would do well filmed as a one-off drama for television.
Beaton has been working hard on Fracked! (complete with exclamation mark to denote how explosive the subject is). Some of the gags are so topical that I wondered if the playwright was hunched over a laptop in the wings, adding material as the opening night progressed.
The audience applauded and laughed out loud when Oliver Chris, so perfect as oily PR man, Joe, made a joke about Chichester’s lamentable train service (“Have you tried getting on a train run by Southern Rail recently?”). There’s also a Brexit joke and one about Boris. He’ll be exhausted if he plans to keep this up for the entire run.
Fracked! opens with the audience playing concerned villagers (for gratis, it appears) attending a specially called public meeting to discuss plans by Deerland Energy to drill in the fictitious village of Fenstock.
I feel like I’m back being a cub reporter and covering a local parish council meeting. It’s eerily realistic.
The lady mayor battles with the sound system while slimy Joe, every inch a stereotype of what we imagine a London PR guru to be (and I’ve met a few Joes after a lifetime covering council planning inquiries) smiles at the gathering, confident that he’s shit-hot at his job.
Sitting alongside him is Hal Fraser, chief exec of Deerland. Well dressed, nervous, he looks ill at ease and uncomfortable out of his usual office environment and facing an angry public.
Michael Simkins’ understated performance as the corporate suit is spot on. The energy boss almost persuades us, with a terribly earnest face, about how we need to look for other sources of power before traditional fossil fuels run out. Yeah, he’s talking sense.
But there a sting in the tale. His company isn’t as squeaky clean as he wants us to think it is. As the show picks up speed we’re left appalled at the consequences of drilling into shale. There’s even a few gasps from the villagers (sorry, audience).
The meeting begins and a woman starts barracking the panel before she is dragged out by security, the whole thing being filmed by a hack.
“Oh god!” Elizabeth groans the next morning. “I’m on YouTube looking like a mad old Harpy!” She’s even trending on Twitter #dontfrackwithyourgranny.
Anne Reid’s Elizabeth isn’t some mad old biddy but, her proud, long-suffering husband, Jack, is happy to point out, is a former university lecturer at Durham and a Doctor to boot.
Should I point out that the production is being directed by Richard Wilson? Yes, that one. One Foot In The Grave writer David Renwick would be proud. Beaton’s pithy dialogue, and the actions of the feisty Elizabeth, are reminiscent of the type of behaviour we witnessed from the testy Victor Meldrew when he frequently railed against red tape, authority and injustice.
Dear Jack, brilliantly described by Beaton as the “faintly cheesed-off spouse” and beautifully played by James Bolam, would rather keep his head down and mulch his roses than get involved in a campaign. He yearns for a quiet retirement but Elizabeth can’t help herself.
She doesn’t want their way of life destroyed but, more than NIMBYism, she’s done her homework, poring over her laptop to discover the real effects of fracking. It makes frightening reading.
This is all-out war and Joe resorts to a dirty tricks campaign to get the right result for his clients.
Oliver Chris is the epitome of immorality. A gun for hire who isn’t afraid to break the rules. He uses a whole dictionary of glib media-speak (plus a copious amount of swearing), and goes about glad-handing, greasing palms and rolling out platitudes.
Snarling with contempt at the fracking protesters, he declares: “All they are interested in is sex and vegetables!” He positively oozes on stage. It’s a brilliantly observed performance.
Beaton’s also done his homework. There’s propaganda from both sides plus a big speech from Elizabeth demanding a call to arms from the cosy, stay-at-home, middle classes, but it’s the little things that you’ll remember from this wonderfully conceived play.
Steven Roberts has a tremendously funny cameo as a waiter who reels off an endless list of icecream flavours before popping back now and then to give updates on the progress of raspberry souffle.
Professional protester, the unwashed Sam (Freddie Meredith), a laid-back green-haired pagan vegan, may infuriate Jack by calling him dude but this uni graduate proves an ace at playing amateur detective.
Jack has some of the best lines as a pensioner ill at ease with new technology. Warily pointing a mobile phone at his wife who is about to be arrested he warns: “I will post the video on YouTube and it may go vital!”
This compelling comedy probably won’t help you make your mind up about fracking but it may shake some out of their complacency.
Fracked! runs in the Minerva Theatre until August 6.
Alistair Beaton’s topical green comedy Fracked! is a gas, flexing its countryside credentials against big business over the future of energy exploration.