Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold tackle climate change in Earthquakes in London
“It’s Cabaret, we’ve got our heads down and we’re dancing and drinking as fast as we can. The enemy is on its way, but this time it doesn’t have guns and gas it has storms and Earthquakes in London, fire and brimstone.”
Mike Bartlett breaks new ground with his latest work Earthquakes in London. Having made a reputation for stripped-down psychodramas such as last year’s Olivier-winning Cock at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, he now expands his repertoire with a freewheeling epic play dealing with climate change. This dynamic National Theatre co-production with Headlong is directed by Rupert Goold, who moves on from financial meltdown in Enron to global warming with equally spectacular results.
The epic themes of the play, which mainly takes place in the present, but begins in 1968 and fasts forward to 2525, are explored through the prism of a dysfunctional family, whose break-up mirrors the impending ecological disaster. Three sisters have reached a critical point in their lives. The eldest, Sarah (Lia Williams), is the environment minister in a coalition government, in danger not only of losing her idealistic green roots but of losing her redundant banking husband Colin (Tom Goodman-Hill), who is having a mid-life crisis. Schoolteacher Freya (Anna Madeley) is pregnant but going out of her mind with worry about bringing another life into a world she thinks is going to end, while her husband Steve (Geoffrey Streatfield) worries about her mental state. And the youngest sister Jasmine (Jessica Raine), a rebellious student, seems to be doing her best to destroy herself with drugs and drink
Meanwhile, their estranged father Robert (Bill Paterson), living in a remote part of Scotland, has turned into a prophet of doom. A brilliant scientist, he once sold out to the airline industry by giving a positive spin to carbon emissions in an influential report, but now warns misanthropically of mankind bringing about its own demise.
Surely such apocalyptic subject-matter has never made such entertaining theatre as this show. This may be a large canvas, but Bartlett’s sharply witty take on the awful absurdity of human relationships is as precisely observed as ever, with moments of surreal fantasy, while complex topical issues are made accessible. Goold’s stunning stagecraft ensures the three hours pass quickly in a rollercoaster ride featuring an erotic eco-cabaret, synchronized pram-pushing middle-class mothers and a succession of fleeting oddball characters encountered on the street or in the park.
In Miriam Buether’s eye-catching design, the Cottesloe has been transformed into a sort of club, with an S-shaped orange catwalk snaking its way through the audience, some of whom sit on adjacent barstools, with the cast often getting up close and personal, while more intimate scenes are staged on either side of the auditorium in concave rectangular spaces. Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington’s all-round projections of mainly London scenes help anchor the action in a densely populated urban landscape.
An excellent 17-strong cast play about 40 roles in a bewildering kaleidoscope of metropolitan life: Williams shows the personal cost to Sarah of her-powered political career, Madeley conveys the confused desperation which takes Sarah to the brink and Jessica Raine reveals the hurt beneath Jasmine’s angry, attention-seeking behaviour. In a laudably unsentimental performance, Paterson portrays the essential loneliness of Robert, an embittered man who’s lost faith in humanity and is seemingly unable to love his daughters.
Goodman-Hill makes Colin’s self-obsessed depression very funny while not sending it up and Streatfield’s Steve is a sympathetic figure out of his depth. There is also good support from Michael Gould as the smoothly Machiavellian businessman Carter, and Bryony Hannah as the comically disturbing schoolboy Peter.
Although it could do with a tighter focus and the futuristic scenes fail to convince, Earthquakes in London is an impressively ambitious work given full value in this outstanding production. Admirably unpreachy, its aftershocks will resonate for some time in the mind.
Earthquakes in London
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold
Lucy May Barke
Director: Rupert Goold
Set Designer: Miriam Buether
Costume Design: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Music: Alex Baranowski
Choreography: Scott Ambler
Fight Director: Kevin McCurdy
Running Time: Three hours with one interval
Closed at the Cottesloe Theatre on 22nd September 2010
The Cottesloe Theatre
London SE1 9PX
Phone: 020 7452 3000
Reviewed by Neil Dowden at the Cottesloe Theatre on 12th August 2010