I will be very honest; I have been looking forward to Earthquakes In London since it was first announced. The combination of rising playwright Mike Bartlett, the ever talent-nurturing National Theatre and the innovative, exciting Rupert Goold and his company Headlong, had my mouth watering.
The experience of walking into the Cottesloe theatre and finding it completely redesigned – its stage and seating ripped out and replaced with a snaking walkway, with cinema screen sized apertures cut out of the walls at either end of the room – had me feeling like a child on Christmas Eve. What treats could possibly follow?
The answer is a piece which feels epic in it scope and style, but which tells the story of one family; a piece that explores the possibly catastrophic effects of global warming and also the tensions and fears that can arise in family life. It somehow manages to be vast and intimate simultaneously, like a theatrical tardis.
Bartlett’s tale follows three sisters: Sarah is Minster for the Environment aiming to stop airport expansion but caught in a failing marriage put under strain by her career; Freya is a teaching assistant who is terrified about her pregnancy and hounded by a skeleton motif hoody-wearing pupil; youngest sister Jasmine is a student who is angry at everyone. Back in 1968, talented scientist Robert faces a moral dilemma with consequences he cannot possibly imagine.
Scenes overlap as they are played out on the walkway which, with the help of projected backdrops, becomes a burlesque club, city street or parkland, characters mingling and ignoring each other as they wander past. The focus of attention switches from the centre of the room to the alcove stages at either end. Dream sequences and internet surfing give way to musical numbers performed for and amid the audience. It is a treat for the senses that always offers something new or different, sometimes leaving you questioning where to look and what to focus on.
Style and vigour is nothing without content, and Bartlett’s writing is witty, engaging and fearless. Bill Paterson’s father figure Robert blends Sherlock Holmes’s gifts for analysis with the pessimism of Dad’s Army’s Fraser, Tom Goodman-Hill is hugely endearing as the downtrodden Colin, Lia Williams is heartbreaking as the torn Sarah, and Jessica Raine spits fire and brimstone as Jasmine. I could go through the entire cast.
Does it stretch credulity a touch too far by the end, the second half descending from warnings of doom to a world of myth? Maybe. But I was not the only audience member to be left holding back the tears. From devastation on every level grows hope.