Writer: Mike Bartlett
Director: Abigail Graham
Can humanity control nature? Mike Bartlett’s 2010 play Earthquakes in London suggests we can; we
invented aeroplanes, sent man to the moon, and structures like the Thames Barrier outdo Canute by
actually holding back the tide, so with the earth threatened by a voluminous population, pollution and
waste, can climate change really be halted?
Three sisters find themselves at the centre of Bartlett’s play, one a pregnant teacher, one an aimless
student and the third the Minister for Energy and Climate. With a seismic event predicted to hit
London within days, the siblings are thrown into an existential crisis that affects husbands, lovers,
careers and unborn children as a fateful scientific and personal decision returns to haunt the family.
10 years on from the premiere of Earthquakes in London its hopeful message and belief that the
climate warnings will be heeded in time feels both prescient and naïve – yes it is a hot topic with plenty
of column inches devoted to the problems the world faces, but in a decade few new steps have been
taken by governments and corporations to meaningfully address the issues. This interestingly staged
production by final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama captures that difficult
duality in the play with mixed results
Bartlett’s play is overburdened with weakly realised subplots that never quite decides if it wants to be
a serious issue-driven piece, a narrative with character development and investment or an absurdist
pastiche of modern behaviour. Abigail Graham’s new production attempts all three over two hours
and 15-minutes, resulting in a fairly scrappy first half that strengthens as the larger story unfolds.
The production overlays four story strands – one for each sister and a tangential section with their
absent father – staging them concurrently in a mass of chairs and furniture designed by Sarah Beaton.
The overly busy vision for a while detracts rather than enhances the story, taking the audience some
time to settle into the style and fast-paced nature of Bartlett’s plotting which is more akin to the
rapidity of television writing.
There is almost too much to take in with several interconnected characters to keep track of, a number
of errant scenes that add little to the narrative arc and plenty of amusingly staged surrealist moments,
dream sequences and dance numbers which feel very much of their time. The effect of so much noise
clouds the message; is the audience being asked to think more deeply about the imminent effects of
climate change or – as is so clear in this production – the poisonous consequences of genetic and
social inheritance. What happens to pregnant Faye seems to have far more to do with her broken
family and its resultant mental health effects than the scientific evidence of global warming.
The Guildhall is making bold modern choices for its public theatre programme but Graham could be
more ruthless in her approach, trimming the fat to remove some of the less successful parts of the
play including the entire subplot with the father in Scotland which would make this a slightly more
satisfying experience. The fantasy sequences are very funny including a fun recreation of
synchronised swimming on Hampstead Heath and a quite literal “mummy mafia” in dark glasses and
black coats, and the very different personalities of the sisters comes sharply into view.
Erin Mullen is most sympathetic as politician Sarah, described as cold by her own husband, Mullen
brings warmth and humanity to a complicated role. Sarah elucidates the problem for ministers
balancing the need to act with making decisions for the greater good which like the specific problems
of climate change are about predicting the future. Mullen shows Sarah’s pragmatism but also her
personal struggles to maintain relationships while trying to determine what she believes.
Lottie Fraser’s Freya is a woman under pressure and across the show Fraser plots her growing
paranoia that credibly leads to significant consequences for her and her child as fears overwhelm her.
Lucy Mabbitt’s Jasmine is more anarchic, a default destructivist who cannot reconcile her own
purposelessness, a story left sadly unresolved by Bartlett in the second half. Louis Landau wins the
audience over as geeky Colin forced out of his shell while Emily Fairn offers some broad but
enjoyably comic supporting roles.
Earthquakes in London is the second of Bartlett’s plays in revival this month and with Albion returning
to the Almeida this is a good time to review the writer’s cautionary tales about England and the planet
if big political changes fail to emerge. The production at Milton Court is a patchwork which eventually
holds together with a demand for change, but as Tom (Daniel Adeosun) explains, all politicians do is
talk, when are they going to act?
Runs until 15 February 2020