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.
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.”