Review: Fracked! at Cambridge Arts Theatre - a serious play which is side splitting from start to finish

Anne Reid and James Bolam in Fracked

Anne Reid and James Bolam in Fracked - Credit: Archant

This play is a delight from start to finish.

The cast of Fracked!

The cast of Fracked! - Credit: Archant

Though tackling a serious subject - and what could be more worrying than having to drink radio active water - it is funny all the way through with ironies, parodies, topical jokes and great characterisation.

Anne Reid and James Bolam with their immaculate comic timing and genuine raport draw shrieks of laughter as the respectable retired couple, Elizabeth and Jack who have never done anything more militant than writing a letter to The Times. Suddenly they find themselves involved in a protest against their village of Fenstock being drilled for shale gas.

So far, their twilight years have centred on Scrabble, shepherd’s pie and pruning the roses until Deerland Energy moves in to the neighbourhood.

When the company hires an up and coming public relations firm to sell the idea to the locals, suddenly we get a celebration of cynicism.

The cast of Fracked!

The cast of Fracked! - Credit: Archant

With an ingenious set, the action moves back and forth between the PR company’s boardroom and Elizabeth and Jack’s kitchen.

Moxley Biggleswade PR has a video explaining the benefits of fracking using music by Elgar as a soundtrack. It ends with the slogan “Because We Care”.

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Jenny, a glamours, middle-aged protestor in the village has a hippie, vegan boyfriend aged 23, and everything in modern life is seen through the glorious perspective of people who once lived in a age of common sense.

As director Richard Wilson so often said, they: “don’t believe it”.

Elizabeth wants to protect their beloved village. But what is left of it, asks Jack. Once there was a post office and there were shops. Now there isn’t even a pub, just a gastro place where you have to eat grilled goats cheese “on a slate”.

When Elizabeth becomes a You Tube star and is interviewed on the phone for a newspaper, she is cut short when the reporter on the other end says they have “got enough”.

PR guru Joe, played adroitly by Harry Hadden-Paton, (who as Bertie Pelham married Lady Edith in Downton Abbey) says it is no good lying to people.

“The last thing we want to do is lie to people - because lying doesn’t work any more.”

It dawns on law-abiding Elizabeth that something else doesn’t work either.

“Our democracy doesn’t work for ordinary people.”

She is persuaded by her militant friend Jenny (Andrea Hart) to take direct action and that’s when the play becomes a proper call to arms.

Though playwright Alistair Beaton says he’s a writer not a scientist, the detail about what fracking is, how it is done, the devastation to the landscape it causes and how it poisons the water supply is truly alarming, particularly the revelation that the fracking companies have no idea how to dispose of the contaminated water.

This play could so easily have been pure propaganda. It isn’t because it’s a laugh with almost every line and the characters are so human.

Mention must go to Andrea Hart for playing both the lady mayor who opens the proceedings with a council meeting in Fenstock and Jenny the protestor. Both are highly recognisable. We know people like that.

Also to Steven Roberts for his cameo as a waiter which is gorgeous - his walk is as delicious as the souffle he serves.

And it was a treat to see Michael Simkins (who has written one of the funniest books in print on his stage career: What’s My Motivation) giving an understated but slick performance as Hal, the head of Deerland Energy.

Anne Reid is best known as a television actress having appeared in Coronation Street in the 1960s, in Victoria Wood’s Dinner Ladies and more recently in Last Tango in Halifax. James Bolam has been with us on TV from The Likely Lads in the 1960s to New Tricks. Both of them can hold a live audience spellbound. Their performances are exemplary, effortless and a joy to see, uplifting. They are so comfortable on a stage.

This is a lovely play, delicately written, elegantly performed and entirely entertaining. I loved every minute of it.