Review – Earthquakes in London – National Theatre

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Earthquakes in London is a strange beastie of a play. Coming off of the high of author Mike Bartlett’s superb (if short) Cock (at the Jerwood last fall), I expected – well, almost nothing, really, other than his perfectly created dialogue. I certainly didn’t expect a play with a running time of three hours and ten minutes, and I never thought that anyone could have expected the audience (including me!) to STAND through the show. Admittedly this is because I am a bit thick and when I bought my tickets I sincerely did not understand what I was being offered (as there was only one type of ticket available when I bought, I didn’t realize that sitting down was even possible, or that this was to be standing and not moving as per a normal promenade show). Unless you are under thirty with particularly strong knees, you must avoid the £10 “pit standing” seats at all costs – with my sprained ankle, it was a one way ticket to hell.

Well, except, as it turns out I wound up getting a spinning bar stool in front of the swirling catwalk of a stage that wends through the middle of the Cottlesloe, and from this vantage point, with actors stripping, grinding, fainting, getting stoned, and dying in front of my very face (seat 12 FYI), I had massive, exciting theatrical overload, far better than most promenade shows. My God. It was like … really being there, or, really almost being there, but just far more immersive than almost any play I’ve ever been too – there were actors in front of me, behind me, above me, to my side, just everywhere, and the action was changing from one place to another so quickly I was whirling around like a kitten tracking a laser pointer, never sure if I was supposed to be looking at the robo-Stepford mummies rocking their prams, the strange singing men coming up through holes in the catwalk, the latex-clad nursie, one of the two cut-in stages on the opposing walls, the video projections on the sides (for once helpful, decorative in a useful but not oppressive or “we were too cheap to do this right” way), or everything at once. To make it even more clear, scenes took place in which characters were supposed to be in different places (a house and Soho) but walked through each others’ physical place on the set, leaving my brain to resolve just what was going on. I loved this; it was exhilarating. I sat there in the middle of act one going, “My God, this is a major theatrical event, and I am here for it!” Relations between sisters, very modern politics, and the end of the world hanging over it all? Where was it all going?

But … it became clear as the act wound down (some two hours in) … where we were going was to very familiar territory, in this case Playwright Gets Preachy Land. It was NOT some bizarre “deus ex machine” catastrophe designed to bring us all together, no, it was … wait for it … a three hour polemic on how We All Need To Change Our Behavior To Save The World From Climate Change. Seriously. It got into it hard core at about 90 minutes in and it never stopped shaking that rag doll. Did the question of a father and daughter both selling themselves out for financial gain really matter? Did a father’s abandonment of his family matter? Did dealing with pre-natal depression matter? Did any of the struggles that any of the characters had ever go anywhere interesting? Yeah, sure, youngest sister Jasmine (Jessica Raine, totally hot and very “on” for the whole show) took her clothes off, and Lia Williams was utterly brilliant as environmental minister who couldn’t balance her work and home life (and bullied her husband), but Anna Madeley spent the whole damned play crawling around dealing very unconvincingly with the “struggle” of bringing a being into a world that was going to collapse during the baby’s lifetime, and I didn’t care. All of those solid characters (well, not Anna Madeley’s), all wasted. It was the one time I’d seen the multiple story line thing really seeming to work, but Bartlett splorted it all away to get into a polemic (leading into a ridiculous fantasy world) that left my heart shrivelled.

My God, when will playwrights learn that a good play ultimately comes down to the relationships between the characters in it. You can use the platform to sell a point but if what’s going on between the people isn’t interesting, the pontificating is dull. Shaw managed to walk this tightrope generally quite well; Bartlett has unfortunately fallen prey to the David Hare syndrome: too in love with beating the audience about the head with his Really Important Point to make a Really Good Play. Me, if I want to read about climate change, all I have to do is pick up the paper any day of the week; it’s covered extensively in the news. I don’t go to the theater to hear this all over again: I go to learn about people and what makes them tick. At the end of the night, this focus on politics and news of the day has already hopelessly dated Earthquakes in London, making it stale even as the package is being opened. The fantastic staging is something I will remember for a long time; but the play itself, I’m afraid, will not, and for the talented cast and the teasing hints of an amazing storyline that was squashed flat in order to get a point across it’s all a damnable shame.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, August 2nd, 2010. It continues through September 22nd but appears to be totally sold out. For another point of view and much more detail on the plot, please see the West End Whinger’s review; a comprehensive listing of reviews from the majors can be found on UpTheWestEnd.com. Note that if you are very concerned about climate change you will probably find this a wonderful show LATER: Or so I thought when I wrote this: Robert Butler apparently did not!)

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16 Responses to “Review – Earthquakes in London – National Theatre”

  1. MP Says:

    Oh dear, I have a standing ticket for this. I’ve managed to stay upright (just about) through a few boiling August matinees at the Globe, though, so should be OK.

    There’s no actor-audience interaction of any kind, with the “standers”, is there? I have a real phobia of that sort of thing… I don’t mind being really close up, so long as I’m not required to do anything! 😛

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Please to see that other than walking through the audience to get onstage, the actors totally ignore all the people they’re standing between.

  2. L Says:

    Have to say I really agree with many of your comments. I’ve loved all the plays I’ve seen of his so far – My Child and Artefact, but precisely because I cared so much about the carefully drawn out characters – they mattered to me and the dialogue between them was real – and in some ways timeless. But I couldn’t really care less about the characters in Earthquakes and I left it pretty irritated that I’d been subjected to over 3 hours of climate change rants (albeit to a decent soundtrack) . Hopefully it won’t last long and he will go back to writing fantastic SHORT and intense plays and monologues, which he can clearly do very well.

  3. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    Have to challenge you on “if you are very concerned about climate change you will probably find this a wonderful show”.

    I think if you are very concerned about climate change you will probably find this frustratingly lightweight and somewhat patronising.

  4. Rev Stan Says:

    Saw it last week and completely agree. After the initial excitement of the staging had died down it was all a bit flimsy and soggy. It’s almost like the powers that be at the National were so dazzled by the combo of theatre talents Mike Bartlett and Rupert Goold I feel that someone should step in and slap some faces or at least shake them a little bit.

  5. Roo Says:

    Mr Billington gave it four stars. Sans Taste gave it five. I suppose it just goes to show… something.

    • Rev Stan Says:

      I’m very surprised that Billington gave it four stars. Thought he’d see through it unless they’ve done a lot of work since the early performance during preview that I saw.

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