Review: Earthquakes In London

Apocalypse you can enjoy

By John Nathan, August 12, 2010

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

Earthquakes in London, an exhilarating drama of a disintegrating family living in a disintegrating city

Earthquakes in London, an exhilarating drama of a disintegrating family living in a disintegrating city

You can pick holes, but what is the point? You could bang on about how a play which puts so much energy into getting us to think seriously about the science of climate change, uses some pretty dodgy science itself.

But Mike Bartlett's time-vaulting epic (the action begins in 1968 and ends in 2026) is so exhilarating; and director Rupert Goold serves up its complexities with such bravura; and Miriam Buether's design - the Cottesloe has been reconfigured into a nightclub with a catwalk stage snaking through the audience - is so audacious, only the mealiest mouth would moan.

Bartlett burst onto the scene in 2007 with an open wound of a play in which estranged parents fought for custody of their child. Here the dysfunctional family - focusing on three sisters - is living on a malfunctioning planet.

The title is not a metaphor. Sinking glaciers have slammed into tectonic plates and an earthquake in London is predicted. And there is a fissure in the sisters' family too. Their emotionally distant father, Robert (Bill Paterson), is a widower and maverick environmentalist who has predicted the coming apocalypse. His unloved daughters were always an unwelcome distraction from his research.

For pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley), it is a bad time to give birth. Her student sister Jasmine (Jessica Raine) deals with parental abandonment by having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs. Eldest sister Sarah (Lia Williams) is a Cabinet Minister in the new Liberal/Conservative government. So contemporary is this play, it feels like it was written last week.

But like all good political works - and Bartlett's has the hurtling pace of one of the multi-plotted sagas that made HBO the king of TV drama - what grips here is the intertwining of private and public life. The narrative weaves its way back and forth through time. We witness the early corruption of climate science and, later, a vision of London, swamped by floods and desperate refugees living in shanty towns in the city's parks.

Goold injects his show with a satirical and surreal song-and-dance soundtrack, and if we are occasionally conscious of the director's determination to entertain his audience every single minute of this three-hour play, that is a lot better than not being entertained.

There are no weak links in the fine cast, but outstanding is Raine who transmits the angry vulnerability of an adrift 19-year-old.

(Tel: 020 7452 3000)

Last updated: 11:17am, August 12 2010