Encompassing impending environmental disaster, issues of political responsibility vs. private complacency, and the failures of a generation, Mike Bartlett’s vast, time-traveling “Earthquakes in London” is not short on big ideas. An epic depicted in theatrical mosaics, it’s like a British environmental version of “Angels in America” as written by Caryl Churchill. But despite the often astonishing verve of Rupert Goold’s production, the play itself promises more than it delivers.
Sarah (Lia Williams), a present-day government minister at the department of the environment, is married to the unemployed Colin (Tom Goodman-Hill). Freya (Anna Madeley), the distracted and heavily pregnant wife of Steve (Geoffrey Streatfeild), is having her life taken over by a strange teenage boy, Peter (Bryony Hannah), while Jasmine (Jessica Raine) is a noisily disaffected 19 year old with little sense of responsibility. Only gradually do we realize the three women are sisters.
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That’s only half of it. Not even counting the collections of unnamed students, swimmers, passersby and mothers with strollers, Bartlett creates suspense via a remarkable 33 characters — from smooth-talking airline executive Carter (Michael Gould) to Jasmine’s equally suspicious latest sexual conquest, Tom (Gary Carr). And who is that couple in flashback in 1968? What is the research on airline pollution that’s undertaken in 1973?
Bartlett initially withholds the interconnections. Instead, he draws audiences into a game of guessing what holds everyone — and everything — together, a technique that adds suspense to his presentation of a wealth of perspectives on contemporary attitudes to selfish individualism and selfless concern. It’s a tribute to his construction that the 95-minute first half pretty much flies by.
Once almost all the links have been made clear, however, the more explanatory second half runs out of steam.
Having been so bracingly unsentimental in the portrayal of a family wrecked by a father’s ruthless dedication to scientific ideology (embodied by a marvelously focused, relaxed Bill Paterson), it’s disappointing to watch the underwritten, visionary section set in 2525 tip over into surprising sentimentality.
Faced with a play stronger on apt metaphor and vivid juxtaposition of ideas than overall dramatic trajectory, helmer Goold goes for broke, not least in his marshaling of the production design.
Set designer Miriam Buether strips out the seating and turns the floor of the rectangular Cottesloe theater into an acting space dominated by a four-foot-high serpentine catwalk edged by audience members. Seated on swivel bar stools, audiences swing round to watch scenes flowing across the space with letter-box-shaped inner stages at either end of the auditorium. The rest of the audience looks down on the action from galleries on either side; the fronts of these galleries act as projection screens.
Goold’s handling of the video is enhanced by Scott Ambler’s choreography, which supplies surprising, witty dance numbers and a fluidity to the staging, a necessity in a show that survives by keeping so many theatrical plates spinning.
Given the blasts of song and dance, surging and plummeting switches of mood — theater for the attention-deficit generation? — it’s all the more impressive that many performances register strongly. Anne Lacey is deliciously dour as housekeeper Mrs. Andrews, and Maggie Service is hilarious pulling rank as a shop assistant with attitude.
Bartlett’s previous plays, especially the Olivier-winning “Cock,” revealed him as a fiercely concentrated, resonant miniaturist. His more expansive skewering of attitudes to the environment — “Bad things are happening. Let’s stick our heads in the sand” — is undeniably urgent and given heft by Goold’s audacious production. Rarely, one feels, has a dystopia been so entertaining.
Ultimately, however, it’s clear that the evening is less than the sum of its parts. Having commissioned Bartlett, Goold might have achieved a stronger result had he instigated a tougher edit and curbed his own directorial enthusiasm.