In a lengthy whirlwind of staccato scenes with lento, adagio and presto interludes, Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London combines political intrigue, corporate corruption, personal compromise and environmental campaigning within the context of life in a divided family of three sisters and a father dealing with its past, present and future.
A production that sustains interest through the committed performances and consistent direction.
Time is significant in several respects. The play dates from 2010, the year in which the General Election result left David Cameron without a working majority and the Liberal Democrats coming to his rescue. This difficult scenario is played out with one of the sisters as a Liberal minister balancing the practicalities of airport expansion, government priorities and aggressive advances from a large airline company. This is not a smooth linear drama, however. Scenes go back to 1968 and 1973, operate in 1991 and what was then the present, while lurching forward as far as 2525 making use of the sentiments of the Zager and Evans song that in turns looks as far ahead as 9595.
There is much about Earthquakes in London that fits our current situation. We still have a government relying on a minority party to keep it in power and the debate about airport runways continues to reel from decided to open. Meanwhile, issues of climate change and the power of corporations remain at the forefront of politics around the world. Yet in only eight years it seems to have become slightly dated, coming from a period of raising awareness into a generation of more in-depth debate about what to do. Instead of the epic style of the play making it intensely thought provoking it now feels more like looking through a window into an historic curiosity.
Without the resources of the Cottesloe Theatre, where the play was first performed as an extravaganza, Sedos at the Bridewell Theatre have created their own style for this production. Mike Bartlett said, “ The play is presented using as much set, props and costume as possible. The stage should overflow with scenery, sound, backdrops, lighting, projection etc. Everything is presented. It is too much. The play is about excess, and we should feel that.” The opposite is true here. The theatre is dark and the traverse bare. Under the direction of Chris Davis the excess has gone, props are minimal and even the dance and burlesque scenes feel understated. The odd flash of colour in the costumes is almost glaring amidst the otherwise dull. These factors combine to make the darker aspects of the play harbingers of more doom and gloom than might otherwise have been intended.
With a cast of eight principals and an ensemble featuring another seven actors taking up to five roles each there’s a lot to keep up with; at times perhaps too much. As the resident company, the cast are clearly at ease working with each other. Performances are uniformly convincing and although some parts are larger than others this is not a production designed for individuals to stand out, but yet permits the development of defined characters.
The Telegraph, in words that have stuck with this play, called the premiere ‘the theatrical equivalent of a thrilling rollercoaster ride’. That can’t be said this time around. It is, however, a production that sustains interest through the committed performances and consistent direction.