The programme notes make great play with the word “epic”. Allowing for a vibrant production by Rupert Gooold and Caroline Steinbeis within a stunning and cunning set by Miriam Buether (the split-second timings imposed by her double-revolve must pose enormous stage management problems for venues on this tour), “panorama’ – in the old sense with its magic lantern associations – is perhaps more apposite.
At the heart of Mike Bartlett’s play is a modern family. Like many such, in real life as on stage, it’s dysfunctional. We meet Robert as an altruistic young environmental scientist and as his older opt-out self. He has had three daughters with Grace; Sarah – a high-flying politician, Freya – a special-needs teacher whose name tells you all about her (if you know your Nordic mythology), and Jasmine – a free spirit teenager with just as many hang-ups as anyone else.
Each of the elder two has a husband. Sarah’s Colin has lost his job, and his way through life with it. Steve is equivocal about impending fatherhood in particular and the world in general. Jasmine is just playing the field. That involves drugs, drink and lots of sex. Scenes spin across each other, occasionally jar, sometimes interlock. It’s a show to whose words as well as actions you have to pay close attention.
None of them can avoid the petty futilities of everyday existence, either by retreat to a Scottish glen, filling the day with business or trivia or just concern for what the future holds in all or any of its aspects. They’re like characters in a morality play – types not people – and we cannot feel deeply for them.
It is, as you’d expect of a Headlong collaboration with the National Theatre, very well acted. Tracy-Ann Oberman is Sarah with a stoked fire under her ice and Leah Whitaker plays Freya as someone with an overflow of concern which somehow twists itself out of proportion. Lucy Phelps throws herself into Jasmine’s mischief and there are neat sketches of Tom by Kurt Egyiawan and of Mrs Andrews by Maggie McCourt.
Helen Cripps is completely credible as Peter, one of Freya’s more troublesome pupils. You cringe for Joseph Thompson as the younger Robert, so willing to believe that the companies financing his research have no ulterior motive. The bitterness of the older Robert, as selfish in his way as any of the people he now derides, comes over in Paul Shelley’s uncompromising performance.