That title, coupled with playwright Natasha Kaeda’s tendency for phrase making in dialogue, more redolent of prose than speech, may initially lead you to expect a romantic invocation of Cornish coastal life; the beauty and the boredom, the gulls and the hulls. But In My Lungs… is a tale of conscious uncoupling forged by romance’s arch enemies – market forces, economic migration, and governmental neglect.
Cornwall, you may have read in a magazine on a summer beach holiday, is the poorest county in the faltering UK. The decline of traditional industries like tin and – contemporary relevance klaxon, fishing, have turned a once proud people into dependents supported by the seasonal influx of obnoxious London tourists.
It’s a county so poor and under populated that the only reliable immigrants all have chronic arthritis. The indigenous locals can’t afford their own housing stock because depressed wages and depressing employment can’t hope to compete with the asset-rich southerners who’ve bought the homes originally built for local workers, turning them into summer chalets. If you’re young you’re faced with the agonising choice of leaving your friends and family to go where the money and the buzz is, namely the other end of the line, or stay and watch the best years of your life become indistinguishable from your dotage.
The couple we meet in this two-hander offer two contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable world views. She’s shrewd and ambitious, ready to leave the familiar rock pools and swells behind for the promise of economic opportunity, cultural diversity, and lifestyle gubbins; he’s the hereditary fisherman with the same connection to the sea as his quarry and livelihood. And haddock, as any Cornishman will tell you, are seldom seen in Soho.
Our couple grew up with, and eventually into each other, in the kind of towns where you can know the same people all your life if you’re not careful. Her ambitions separate them without breaking them, but you just know, because you feel you know someone who’s lived this very scenario, that something’s gotta give. Girls like Julie who don’t stay and marry the grafting lunks that man the boats, are destined to write plays about them when they join the metropolitan arts scene. This play’s existence signals its ending.
There’s two lived-in and likeable characters here, who capture both the wide-eyed embrace of city living from the dying market town, and the non-transferable parochialism that engenders heartfelt attachment to topography and tradition, but kills curiosity.
It’s a tale that’s more tragedy than polemic. Julie, the local girl who gets high on London life, misses her man and her mum, but doesn’t yearn for a return to nights at the Lamp and Whistle followed by pissed up karaoke in the White Lion.
We’re older than she is, so we know that she’ll be back in her 40s when her city boyfriend dumps her for a Brazilian swimwear model, but for now she’s just accepted that, though unfortunate, an economy that deracinates and isolates an individual in a hideous inversion of the community bias built into all happy and successful human societies, is a fact of life, not the grotesque social injustice it truly is.
Perhaps ironically, it’s the uneducated and unambitious local boy who realises that it’s better to, figuratively speaking, die on your feet than live on your knees. His connection to his place of birth can’t be broken, even when its back is, and there’s a nobility in that sentiment that’s rather moving.
If you want to understand why Cornwall, a county heavily subsidised by the EU, voted for Brexit, you could start with that one totemic idea.