Is Richard Bean’s “The Heretic” a wake-up call about the unquestioning orthodoxy surrounding climate change? Definitely. Is it about the dangers of academia bowing to outside sponsors? Unquestionably. Is it also a one-liner-strewn comedy? Certainly. Is it a country-house thriller? That too. And a double-barreled romantic comedy? Indeed. Might all these ingredients make for a less than satisfying meal? ‘Fraid so.
“I’m a scientist. I don’t ‘believe’ in anything.” Dr. Diane Cassell (Juliet Stevenson) is a university lecturer in earth sciences, with the emphasis on the latter of those two words. A professional sceptic, her interrogations of lazily doom-laden, climate-change thinking have put her increasingly at odds with both students and her department.
Having agreed with her professor and one-time lover (nicely shamboling James Fleet) to hold off from publishing her unorthodox research in order to comply with the views held by a major new sponsorship organization, she then reneges on her promise. In the first of several plot contrivances, audiences are asked to believe that this sharply witty, highly experienced academic is naive enough to be outraged that this causes problems.
After subsequently airing further unorthodox views on BBC television — a very funny filmed segment — she is then suspended in a scene smartly satirizing the absurdities of human resources people at their over-solicitous, officious best.
But in the second half, the play abruptly changes gears. Diane is now holed up at her virtually snowbound home in the middle of nowhere with her furiously anorexic daughter and we’re suddenly in a family psychodrama. But, unbeknownst to them, the university security man, revealed to the audience as a dangerous green activist, is hiding upstairs with her kitchen knives.
And then zealously green, very smart, self-harming student Ben (Johnny Flynn) turns up because he fancies her daughter and has hacked into rival university computer data that may disprove accepted theories of climate change. So the relevance of scientific ethics are discussed — at length. And someone sings a love song. And someone has a heart attack.
Bean undeniably has fun creating unexpected characters and reversing audience expectations. Someone enters wearing black setting up the idea of a funeral that turns out to be a wedding, But that again indicates a fondness for a laugh at the cost of character truth. And for every very funny gag, there are rapid second-rate Neil Simon exchanges in which the laugh only comes because of a tiresome set-up line.
Helmer Jeremy Herrin goes for broke, lending gravitas wherever possible but never at the expense of comic pace. To underpin Bean’s overly ambitious tonal range, he encourages immense detail from his actors, especially Johnny Flynn and Lydia Wilson as two late-adolescents utterly convinced of their opinions yet frighteningly fragile. Stevenson barks out snappy retorts, But she does overdo solo distress at the expense of engaging warmth and comedy.
Even Herrin cannot solve the structural faults. Having been taken down the route of a play about the politics of the environment, it’s hard not to feeling misled when matters you’ve been asked to care about are so easily junked in favor of sentimental comic choices.