“Earthquakes In London” by Mike Bartlett

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Thursday 26th August 2010

Young people have always blamed the generation before them for ruining their lives and making life difficult. The current younger generation, however (of which I myself am a part), has it worse. Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London demonstrates the mess our planet is in and the need for rulers of the future to take action now whilst enjoying the life they have. Under the direction of Rupert Goold the play is portrayed in a suitably epic and involving way, and whilst the script is at times in need of trimming we still understand the major points being discussed.

It could be argued that the story is largely irrelevant, that it is simply a vehicle through which Bartlett can explore environmental issues. Of course a narrative is necessary, but it doesn’t on its own depict issues which haven’t been depicted before. Essentially we follow a trio of sisters (Sarah, Freya and Jasmine played with no inhibitions by Lia Williams, Anna Madeley and Jessica Raine respectively), throughout a period of two days in their dysfunctional lives. They each have to deal with problem partners, problem jobs and problems in the world around them. As mentioned above, however, the story of these central characters merely allows access into the world of environmentalism.

The main question Bartlett asks in the play is how best to deal with climate change. We are treated to some wonderful set pieces describing our troubles (a stand-out one being the sisters’ father Robert using his house keeper as an analogous tool), but the most interesting scenes depict situations in which choices can be made to change the world but aren’t. Early on a young Robert is bribed into skewing research to disprove global warming and Sarah (a Lib Dem MP) almost joins forces with a global airline corporation. It is these wrong decisions which are being made daily that are putting our planet in jeopardy. As long as power-holders and money-grabbers keep choosing to “stick their heads in the sand” and ignore the “gathering storm”, there is no hope left.

Although this cause is entirely justified and Bartlett does a sterling job in portraying what is wrong with the current system, he takes up too many pitchforks at once. Quite aside from having a monumental dig at all those who do nothing to help the environment, he also questions the morals over peaceful and non-peaceful protest, whether or not it is right to envisage an apocalypse, the rights of a mother and unborn child, urban freewheeling and even Facebook. It is this vast conglomeration of ideas which makes the play at times hard to follow, causing the production to lose focus.

Use of the absurd in Earthquakes In London should also be questioned. Up to a point many obscure ideas and musical numbers make sense and fit well into the rest of Goold’s adventurous staging, but the moment we see a metaphysical world in which angels exist Bartlett has gone too far. The cause of fighting climate change needs to be addressed but can be done so away from fanciful storytelling. The focus should be on the issue and the drama can be found in that. Deciding to use this other-worldly element does not fit with the rest of the realities on show in the play and adds nothing whatsoever to the drama.

It is Goold’s staging and Miriam Buether’s innovative set design that make the play stand out, however. They do at times take away from the important issues, but generally involve the audience and make them implicit in the action. Buether’s set design turns the Cottesloe into a promenade space, with a long S-shaped bar snaking through the middle and portraying the way society has strayed off our path. When actors make their way into the audience areas we feel a desire to dance and shout along with them, creating the sense of one big party. This is strengthened by Alex Baronowski’s visceral and diverse music and the half-naturalistic, half-symbolistic projections of Jon Driscoll.

As always with Goold’s productions he directs his actors perfectly. The ensemble all create fine performances, but standing out are Williams, conveying the irritability of a tired MP, and Raine, portraying the wild frivolity of youth. Anna Madeley as Freya holds the play together while her character falls apart. Geoffrey Streatfield and Tom Goodman-Hill as confused husbands also impress, and Bryony Hannah as 14-year-old Peter, with some of the best lines in the play, is constantly captivating.

Earthquakes In London is an important play which tackles important issues, and in doing so is incredibly ambitious. It is this ambition, however, which sometimes lets the text falter, suggesting that Bartlett should have taken a closer look at more specific issues. Goold’s direction however allows the script to soar and means that this production should not be missed. Hopefully it will mark the beginning of a tidal wave of serious theatre grappling climate change.

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