There was an earthquake in London recently. A couple of roof tiles were dislodged in Hendon. Usually, the nearest we get to the earth moving is either in the throes of sexual ecstasy or in the comforting rumble of a long goods train passing near our brick foundations in the middle of the night.
Dramatist Mike Bartlett and director Rupert Goold have other shaky ideas: they’ve concocted a three-sister scenario that taps into fears about the end of the world, political compromise with big business and birthing the next generation.
It’s a rickety roller-coaster ride of a play, bereft of the governing passion in the great Goold project of Enron, and one that seems to be ticking too many boxes – green awareness, climate change, apocalyptic prophesy, cryogenic self-preservation, fathers and daughters, familial rivalries – without making any distinctive, throat-grabbing theatrical statement.
A comparison, for instance, with Steve Waters’ similarly apocalyptic The Contingency Plan at the Bush last year is not flattering. The action veers between the 1960s and the future in a sort of manic vaudeville defined, in the first place, by the amazing reconfiguration of the Cottesloe by designer Miriam Buether: the black box is now red; there are two raised end-stages, while, at ground level, a cat-walk platform snakes through the promenade audience, while others sit in attendance as if in a bar or a casino, or behind railings.
The spectacle includes a strip dance, a deepwater song in Hampstead ponds, four dancing nannies with prams, an eruptive street scene that is simply breathtaking, a polar bear rag week and a suicide leap from Waterloo Bridge that melts, through film and lighting (by Jon Driscoll and Howard Harrison), into a stunning, sudden recreation of the National Theatre itself, in all its concrete non-splendour.
Although the three sisters are played with tremendous bravura by Lia Williams as the Lib Dem politician, Anna Madeley as the reluctant mother and Jessica Raine as the free-spirited child of the revolution (she seduces her own brother-in-law, the excellent Tom Goodman-Hill), it’s hard to get too involved in their stories, or indeed that of their testy old Scottish scientist dad, winningly played by Bill Paterson.
There are lovely cameos from Maggie Service as a supercilious shop assistant in Liberty’s and Gary Carr as an advocate of proper respect among the middle-classes for the dying children of Eritrea.
Bartlett’s a hugely talented playwright, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he’s saying too much with too little dramatic focus; this is a thoroughly entertaining evening, for all its expensive, pseudo-avant-gardism, and certainly ticks one other box, that of NT summertime “adventurousness.”