[Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London is, by its own admission (declaration, even!) epic in its scope. Climate change, relationship breakdowns, the end of the world and everything in between; these are the subjects of the work. The play’s staging reflects the scope of its theatre. Elaborate and grandiose, the sheer spectacle of the thing lends weight to the message contained within. We’re effortlessly transported from nightclub to living room, from Parliament Hill to the interior of the Department for the Environment. Scenes frequently overlap, the decisions of the past clashing with their future consequences over and over again.
Familial twists and turns are played out on a revolving stage. It’s an impressive setting for a touring show and apt for the performance it hosts; a performance rallying for revolution, urging us to consider the environmental effects of our actions. Unfortunately, it’s a message presented not without fault. A jumbled narrative veers from one theme to the next with startling regularity. Yes, the personal may be the political, but examining so many crises within one play leads to untied threads and under-developed strands of a multi-faceted story.
Centred on the stories of three women and their estranged father, Bartlett’s key idea, that climate change is real and happening right now, is told through the personal breakdowns of the women and those who surround them. The only thing is, these breakdowns aren’t so much mid-life crises as middle-class crises. The university student who feels lost; the wife who’s afraid to bring a child into the world; the ambitious female minister bored and frustrated with her life. Make no mistake - these are luxurious problems to have.
Despite these gripes, Earthquakes in London won’t fail to hold your attention. The cast play their parts magnificently. Paul Shelley’s portrayal of the father (a climate-change evangelist) is dark, funny and captivating. Tracy-Ann Oberman and Helen Cripps also excel. Cripps’ turn as a school boy in the first half is frequently scene-stealing.
What to make of all this? The play itself is all tell and no show. But perhaps this is the point. With the end of the (human) world at stake, why hide behind nuanced layers of meaning? As an artistic endeavour, however, this lack of subtlety smacks hard. Contrasts are so stark, conflict so pronounced, that it’s difficult not to feel sledge-hammered by the bloody-minded preaching of the whole piece. An impressive staging and fantastic cast breath life into a fascinating but flawed piece of theatre. You certainly won’t be bored.