Review: Earthquakes in London

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Earthquakes in London (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday October 15)

Saving the planet and family life are at the heart of an exciting and energetic touring version of a critically acclaimed new play that proves it’s not easy being green, but it’s a doddle being greedy.

Playwright Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London might be too long for some at three hours, and may be too complicated for many as it goes all timey wimey and flicks the action over a span of several centuries, but in the hands of director Rupert Goold and the extraordinary Headlong Theatre company, it is one of those audacious and ambitious productions that demands a viewing.

When staged at the Cottesloe last year the production placed its National Theatre audience in the heart of the performance space. Necessarily redesigned for touring, the piece may come across as slightly more two-dimensional than intended, but it remains an inventive eye-popping rollercoaster ride with Miriam Buether’s huge revolving set seeming to reach out to infinity and beyond, whether serving as a remote Scottish farmhouse, a jumbo jet, a Burlesque theatre, or Waterloo Bridge.

This is post-modern Chekhov, with three sisters steering an uncertain path through career crisis and family breakdown. The writer’s brief may have initially been to create a drama about climate change, but the broader theme is about the earthquakes shaking the whole of society – and with the social unrest that struck towns and cities earlier in the summer, the message is even more relevant.

As a play it can be hard to determine the main message and dramatic focus: is it about humanity creating an apocalypse, the breakdown of families, the dishonesty of big business, the lure of self-preservation, the prophet ignored, global warming, the cynicism of politics, or the fear of passing on the problems of one generation to the next?

It’s a production where most of the cast are called upon to play many parts, though there are particularly strong performances from Paul Shelley as the droll scientific genius who predicts the forthcoming world catastrophe, yet is morally questionable and unable to relate to his daughters, who he regrets fathering; Tracy-Ann Obermann as the hard-talking Lib Dem minister questioning airport expansion; Lucy Phelps as rebellious teenager Jasmine helping her sister’s husband Colin (Sean Gleeson) through his midlife crisis; and Leah Whitaker as mother to be Freya, thrown into a state of ante-natal depression by the way things are, and possibly destined to deliver a world-changing message.

Oh yes, Earthquakes may verge on the self-indulgent, it is borderline pretentious, and the ending may well edge towards anti-climax, but it is also epic and exhilarating and another Headlong production of imaginative flair.

David Guest