EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 5th October, 2011
With a running time not far off of three hours, a play about climate change seems a daunting prospect, and while I spent the duration of this piece with my bum increasingly numb, in every other respect, the time flew by.
Mike Bartlett’s new piece gives us human drama on an epic scale, focussing on three sisters and zapping back and forth in time across the generations and so the play has more to tell us than just “The end is nigh” – although there is plenty of doom-mongering and scary stuff to go around. What propels the action and keeps it engaging are the relationships of these three women, with each other and with others.
Former Torchwood boss, Tracy-Ann Oberman is a Lib-Dem secretary for the environment, serving in a coalition government (this play is bang up-to-date!) driven in her work to curb airline expansion while her marriage to grey man, Colin, enters its own ice age. She is a woman with a cause, adept at deflecting the machinations of less scrupulous men and yet not without vulnerability. It is a splendid performance.
Also outstanding is Lucy Phelps as rebel-without-a-mother, Jasmine, the youngest sister, more than able to hold her own against Paul Shelley as the overbearing, morally bankrupt scientist, the father who abandoned her when she was still in eco-friendly nappies.
Only in the second act does the play begin to wobble a bit. We are in the year 2525 (a date picked just so we can hear the song) or are we? Are we in a sterile version of the afterlife? Are we in the final dream of dying middle sister, Freya? An animation (which, incidentally, reminded me of the stories of Frith in the film version of Watership Down) tells us that one girl, Solomon, will lead the world through the oncoming global crisis and we will forever live in harmony and at peace with the planet. If this kind of floppy mysticism is humanity’s only saviour, I am glad I won’t be around to endure it.
Otherwise, this is a thoroughly engaging piece, both emotionally and intellectually. Good use is made of a revolving stage and rotating set walls to keep the action flowing and the characters on the move. Music adds energy – the cast lip-synch and do choreography along with Coldplay’s Vida La Viva, for example, and it reminded me of the groundbreaking work of dear old Dennis Potter.
The topical references give immediacy to the piece and also a fast-expiring sell-by date, but this is in support of the message. Time is limited and running out. It may already be too late.
A draining (not just the blood from my buttocks) and rewarding watch, Earthquakes In London is an important new work that entertains and touches while keeping to the acceptable side of propaganda.