“This room is significantly different because you’re in it”
And boy is it different! The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Cottesloe for Earthquakes in London is not the light jazz elevator music, but the complete reconfiguration of the auditorium inside. An inverted S-shaped catwalk-stage dominates, with bar stools either side for the audience, two raised letterbox stages at either end and a DJ in the corner.
A new play from the pen of Mike Bartlett (he of Cock and also Bull) and a co-production with Rupert Goold’s Headlong company. With a timeline switching around from 1968 to 2525 (though predominantly in the present day), it deals with the threat of climate change and impending planetary collapse by looking at the impact on a family of three sisters each with their own issues and the same estranged father.
It clearly aspires to be epic and is surprisingly effective at managing that. Bartlett slips between the public and personal spheres effortlessly and really does have a gift for highly entertaining and incisive dialogue. Combined with the visual excesses typical of Goold’s previous efforts and a stage direction of ‘use as much…as possible’, it doesn’t so much throw the kitchen sink as the entire contents of an MFI store in its approach in trying to leave its mark.
Leading the large ensemble as the sisters are Lia Williams as coldly ambitious and guava-obsessed Sarah, a Lib Dem minister in a Tory coalition government (this is nothing if not up-to-date!), Anna Madeley as the brittle, insecurely pregnant Freya and Jessica Raine in a remarkably accomplished performance as the bolshy wannabe rebel Jasmine. As the men in their life, Bill Paterson as the doom-mongering father, and great shows from both husbands, Geoffrey Streatfeild with a compassionate but complex turn and an angst-ridden Tom Goodman-Hill are all excellent too: Goodman-Hill in particular throwing himself with abandon into his ‘dad-at-a-wedding’ dancing scenes, not once but twice to Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ and Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion’ whilst wearing Crocs!
The storytelling is peppered with musical scenes, the highlights of which for me were the Stepford Wives and their prams doing Goldfrapp’s ‘Happiness’ and the exuberant Liz May Barker’s rendition of Marina and the Diamond’s ‘I Am Not A Robot’ which developed into a full-cast bells and whistles routine which was just silly and brilliant and somewhat reminiscent of Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet video’.
Uncharacteristically for me, I’d plumped for top price tickets given that we were being allocated our actual seats well after booking them and I am glad I did: we ended up middle of the front row on the first tier, the perfect place to survey all that was going on and to see the action on the more intimate end stages with a minimum of fuss. The floor seats (and standing positions) looked fun at first, but given the running time and the sheer amount of stuff just going on, I was glad for the clarity given from our seats versus the immersive thrill of being right in the middle of it at the expense of seeing the bigger picture.
This isn’t a perfect show though. It is long and unwieldy at times, there’s a surfeit of minor characters most of whom struggle to make any impression (although Maggie Service’s Liberty shopgirl and Anne Lacey’s dour Scottish housekeeper were notable exceptions), there are moments when the tub-thumping message around climate change is too clumsily articulated thereby reducing its effectiveness and to be frank, the whole 2525 sequence felt misguided.
But there is no denying the sheer ambition on display here: I found Earthquakes in London to be hugely diverting and fun and aspects of it were indeed truly memorable, not least the sheer speed with which the actors must have raced around the back to emerge in new positions! For me, it pleasingly confirmed Bartlett as a playwright to watch and Goold as a consistently strong director and is just an entertaining rollercoaster of an evening.
Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 22nd September
Note: brief boobular nudity, lots of smoking throughout (which you’re very close to if on the floor and some strobing effects