Review – Earthquakes in London, National Theatre

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Andrew’s excitement was palpable. “They’ve turned it into a bar!” he trilled as he took his seat in the auditorium. “They’ve finally found a use for the Cottesloe!”.

And indeed it seemed at first glance that they had. Designer Miriam Buether has transformed the National Theatre‘s ghastly Cottesloe space almost beyond recognition. How astute and splendidly cunning of her to turn it into the place in which the Whingers would feel most at home.

A long, orange S-shaped bar-cum-stage snakes around the groundlings, some of whom are perched on natty red bar stools while others stand (and later slump) behind them in holding pens.

Less limelight-hugging patrons such as the Whingers sit in galleries surveying the proceedings from above.

Frau Buether (neigh!) has also rather gratifyingly pandered to the Whingers’ predilections by incorporating not one, but TWO curtained proscenium stages set alarmingly high at either end of the auditorium. Despite their being somewhat letter-box in shape it is mostly possible to see what’s going on as long as everyone in a gallery agrees not to lean forward in their seat (or agrees all to lean forward, one supposes, but Phil had the Whingers’ gallery trained within minutes).

But even more importantly this was Earthquakes in London, the first play from the nib of Mike Bartlett since the Whingers beheld his impressive Cock at the Royal Court. And yes, we know Bartlett titled it thus just so the Whingers could play with it. SPOILER ALERT – If you’re sick of the childish Cock-gagging it’s probably best stop reading here.

And if all that weren’t enough Earthquakes in London is directed by one of the WEW’s favourite theatricals; the disarmingly smiley Rupert Goold.

It wasn’t only the Whingers who seemed excited. A woman of a certain age (more certain even than Phil’s) who sat next to the Whingers was so distracted by it all that it turned out she was sitting in the wrong place. As she shuffled back past them to take up her correct seat she teased : “I’ve only come for the nudity and loud music”. How we wished she’d stayed with us.

Anyhoo, after his short but perfectly formed Cock it transpires that Mr Bartlett has gone off in another direction altogether – half-cock.

This is a huge “sprawling epic” (i.e. long and rambling) about impending global catastrophe due to climate change.

Its focus is the lives of three sisters and their father (Bill Paterson) from 1968 to 2525. Yes you read that correctly – we think it’s an excuse to shoe-horn Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” into the proceedings, not that we’re complaining; we likes it.

Sarah (Lia Williams) is a Lib Dem minister in the coalition government who is trying to put a halt to airport expansion, Freya (Anna Madeley) is a teaching assistant mysteriously troubled by her pregnancy and Jasmine (Jessica Raine) is a rebellious teen complete with ripped tights (Do teenagers rip their tights? Is it a fashion statement? Or is it a case of make do and mend?).

Anyway, to say much more would be unfair as this kaleidoscopic presentation of short scenes doesn’t really begin to come together until towards the end of a very long first half.

And long it is. Twice as long as Mike Bartlett’s perfectly sized Cock. One character’s enigmatic line “Soon it will all be over” could hardly have been less appropriate. It stacks in at 3 hours 10 minutes although the text could probably be gotten through in a couple of hours if it weren’t for the fact that somewhere along the line it seems to have been adapted into a musical. Yes, a musical! Here, in the Cottesloe! Complete with singing, dancing (choreography Scott Ambler) and burlesque.

Act 2 has a big number with a cross-section of characters which had Phil reminiscing about the wonderfully ill-judged Beijing/London Olympics handover dance routine (right). All it needed was a double decker bus with Leona Lewis on a stick to appear. The way things were going nothing would have surprised us.

Another “WTF?” number features Jackie O-styled mums jiggling prams which, whilst entertaining (and another catchy song), left us scratching our heads.

The stages are high up. Phil found it hard to concentrate and worried for the cast. Tom Goodman-Hill who manages to squeeze more out of his character than one would have thought possible performs a drunken dance which forced Phil to look away lest he fall. Andrew just kept wondering whether the National’s public liability insurance covers audience members from having actors fall on top of them.

One scene performed at almost nose-bleed height even had an actress on a “hidden” wire promising a spectacular jump. She didn’t. The scene cut to a rather bizarre animation rendering a potentially chilling moment peculiarly hilarious.

Then there’s Bryony Hannah saddled with playing a 14 year old boy again which doesn’t work any better or less irritatingly here than it did in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. We did the gag last time, but since this play calls for recycling we will too: it’s not panto season yet, wasn’t Jimmy Krankie available?

The Whingers were however very taken with Lia Williams. They had seen her many times before but were in complete accord at the interval. “I want to see everything she does from now on” enthused Andrew. Poor Williams.

Unusually the Whingers stuck it out for the second act. A decent handful walked. But it just got even more bonkers as it dragged to its climax. Phil was left watching one audience member struggling to stay awake and thrillingly nearly falling off his bar stool.

And falling between two stools is rather the problem. Yes, it’s ambitious, but there’s too much distracting window-dressing, some scenes just don’t work and you find it difficult to care much about the characters amid all the convoluted shenanigans.

Worst of all, and in spite of all the spectacle we don’t even get the much-talked about earthquake. Barely a tremor. Hardly enough to wake Andrew up. And like Avatar (which is actually shorter than this) it feels a bit like being hit over the head with your own recycling box. The not-at-all-new message that we are all fiddling while the earth burns gets mired in the rambling personal stories.

The programme is full of quotes about the Apocalypse and an essay by playwright Keith Dewhurst* ambitiously entitled “Epic plays in the Cottesloe”  which mentions half a dozen before wondering how many of them were epic.

Is this? Not really. It’s quite filmic with its inter-cutting scenes but there isn’t much scale to it unless you count hopping between 1968 and 2525.

The NT’s breathless blurb sells it so:

Burlesque strip shows, bad dreams, social breakdown, population explosion, worldwide paranoia. A fast and furious metropolitan crash of people, scenes and decades, as three sisters attempt to navigate their dislocated lives and loves, while their dysfunctional father, a brilliant scientist, predicts global catastrophe.

Elsewhere, they even use the phrase “roller-coaster ride” which always has the Whingers’ alarm bells ringing.

But, anyway, as Bartlett’s tiny Cock proved, size isn’t everything.

There are one or two saving graces: there are odd flashes of humour such as when someone tries to describe what the National Theatre looks like: “It’s modern. Well, it used to be apparently.” And Andrew can’t remember a paper dart being flown before (Phil can in the 3D sequence in Moby Dick), let alone one that nearly took out the eye of a groundling.

But apart from that…

And goodness that woman in the wrong seat was right: there is an awful lot of loud music. Earaches in London.


* Q. Obiviously Dewhurst should have been drafted in to write the programme for Cock instead because ‘nobody knows or cares more about meat than Dewhurst’. Ha ha ha.


34 Responses to “Review – Earthquakes in London, National Theatre”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    When that guy was dancing on the stage on his Crocs, I was in deadly fear that he would soon be in my lap, on his way to the floor. It was all just a little too close!

    Lia Williams was great, you are right. I clapped to her just for you (and because she deserved it), she saw it and beamed. Just thought I’d let you know.

  2. […] to be totally sold out. For another point of view and much more detail on the plot, please see the West End Whinger’s review. Note that if you are very concerned about climate change you will probably find this a wonderful […]

  3. Chris Voisey Says:

    Sounds like a load of old cock to me. As I have no intention of seeing it (I’ll wait til they make the ITV version with Julie Walters and the gayer off CORRIE) please can you report on the nudity the certain lady was looking forward to? Any actors showing their Bartletts or front bottoms?

  4. Rev Stan Says:

    I’m surprised you gave it as many as three glasses of wine – are they full of cheap, non wine-list pub style plonk?
    Felt like they came up with the idea for the staging which then forced them into bloating a mediocre play into something that would utilise the space.
    Shame really because I’m a big fan of Mike Bartlett’s Cock.

  5. JohnnyFox Says:

    Is limelight huggable ?

    As an intense illumination created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide at up to 2572 °C, one would imagine not.

    Lia Williams is most definitely huggable, particularly for her bravura performance in murdering all those sleazeballs and rapists, although unfortunately not also the director, in the Michael Winner movie ‘Dirty Weekend’

  6. Oliver Soden Says:

    I was wondering whether you could leave a health warning with the review, warning punters that guavas are liable to leave bruises when lobbed into the groundling populated floor….

    Another example (like Time and the Conways) of Goold using the same old tricks (this had outrageously ENRONed moments) to cover over a really very simplistic, slight, play that barely registered on the Richter scale. It was probably even smaller than Mike Bartlett’s Cock actually. Playwright probably compensating for something.

  7. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Keith Dewhurst’s programme note is also just a leetle self-serving, speaking of himself and Bill Bryden as the first to explore the possibilities of epic productions in the Cottesloe. This ignores the opening production in that space, Ken Campbell’s nine-hour version of Illuminatus!, with which arguably Earthquakes has a lot more in common both stylistically and thematically than, say, The Mysteries… although a fair bit of it was a mystery to me.

  8. jmc Says:

    I hope that the Whingers’ fondness for Lia Williams, which I share, had or will lead to them grabbing a chance to see her movie debut – Michael Winner’s much maligned Dirty Weekend. That she pulls of her part in such an abhorrent movie with such aplomb demonstrates what a committed and hard-working actress she is.

  9. Dave F Says:

    if you insist on going to big shows in the previews, you will continue to be disappointed and undermine yourselves as critics. Every good big show of the last however long, whether it be Enron, Jerusalem whatever, took a while to get going and had a Click moment where everything started working a few shows in. Sometimes it’s before press sometimes after, but in the previews it’s unlikely you’ll see the show working because YOU ARE SEEING A PREVIEW. Of course you’ll say Oh We can tell if it’ll Work or Not. But you can’t. You have no practical knowledge of making theatre and that’s fine and part of your appeal. But you have no idea how much it can change in a day. With Cock, it was a chamber piece, it hit the ground running, it was easier. Maybe if everything was small in scope and about gays and Immediately Good, you’d be happy.

    • Chris Voisey Says:

      Check the madame with the capitals.

      “…but in the previews it’s unlikely you’ll see the show working because YOU ARE SEEING A PREVIEW.”

      Oh yeah then what the fuck have the cast been doing IN THE REHEARSAL PERIOD?

    • Paul Says:

      Nobody takes these reviewers seriously, there’s no point getting annoyed about it.

      To tell the truth I don’t believe anything written here is the actual view of the person writing it, it’s just meant to entertain, reviews here are far too shallow and narcissistic in my opinion but some people seem to like that sort of thing.

      • addicted to theatre Says:

        Chris makes a good point – I was at the second night of the previews and had the misfortune to sit next to Goold and his assistant who spent the entire play giving her notes to write down. Literally every scene required a comment from the great man – I was hoping that it’d be along the lines of ‘cut this’, ‘that doesn’t work, lose it’.
        The play was unforgivably long and I’ve gotten more information on global warming off the back of a muesli box.

  10. Diana Says:

    Earthquakes is a Dog’s Breakfast. Perhaps you need three glasses of plonk to wash it down?

    Some promising scenes in need of a play. Cheers!

  11. Steve Says:

    Think this is going to be a marmate show – love or loath.
    I personally loved it, yes its long but for me was gripping

  12. Oliver Soden Says:

    Come come jmc, stop whinging about the whingers. They’ve cornered the market (and with more wit and eloquence, I might add).

    Shame that the national critics have been taken in by Goold’s same old diversion tactics from the fact the play is a pile of cheap didactic nonsense.

    And I’m still worried about the guava.

  13. Denis Says:

    Aren’t ripped tights make do and don’t mend?

  14. Sally S Says:

    Oh dear Whingers have you fallen for queen Williams? Terrible move, ghastly actress who takes herself so seriously that she considers her performances to be life changing for audiences.
    Nothing huggable about the Williams.
    3 glasses of sherry for me.

  15. Betsy Says:

    Oliver – I think the guava (strictly not a guava, but a plum, right?) is now carried offstage. The audience is safe, at least until the chap on a bike steers a bit to the left..

    Dave F – Saw the second preview of Jerusalem. It was ace. Earthquakes clearly needs more extensive re-writing than would have been possible in a couple of nights of previews….

    • Dave F Says:

      That’s the same one where maybe forty people left at the interval? I was there too. It wasn’t that special. It got a lot better; the fourth show was where it clicked, *I think*.

  16. Phil Says:

    There is no doubt of the considerable writing talent that is on display here.

    Sometimes a writer likes to ‘paint on a larger canvas’ and the application of the imagery needs a wilder and more reckless feeling.

    I had a good experience seeing this play. It was exciting and I always wanted to know what was coming next– both words and imagery.

    As I saw a preview the sound levels weren’t perfect yet, so I find myself looking at the details in the reviews carefully to fill in facts I missed.

    Still good though. Can anyone think of a better way to handle this topic? Its so easy to send things up, but to provide an alternative new work you would like to see is much harder.

    I still have imagery from this evening going around in my head.

  17. simon Says:

    I had the courage of my convictions and walked out halfway. It wants to be Angels in America II and really isn’t. AiA gave a visceral thrill in the original and in the Hammersmith revival because of tight writing and characterisation. This was a mish mash. David Hare’s characters, portent from AiA, depth and staging from a pop video.
    Any play that has an extended scene in which characters mime to Coldplay gets no glasses, even when filled with cheap plonk
    unless you think Big Brother is the best thing on telly. Which sadly means it’ll do well…

  18. Steve Schulz Says:

    Just saw the show and feel it needed “a sharp pencil” to trim it. However, one song threw me back in time, and I cannot remember the title. Can anyone help? I think it was while the man danced in the his Crocks. I know the word “missionaries” is heard in it. I would appreciate your help.

    • ms.marple investigates Says:

      First or second half? The one that stuck in my brain was ‘Rebellion’ (Lies) by Arcade Fire. I actually enjoyed EiL – is there a psychiatrist available?

  19. Nice “Young Frankenstein” gag. It broke up the endless cock jokes nicely.

  20. Boz Says:

    Simon Callow threw a paper aeroplane in the NT’s last-but-one production of The Alchemist. When I saw it cocked it up and had to remake it while ad-libbing, which he did in a superbly funny fashion.

  21. Martin Baker Says:

    Saw this tonight and really enjoyed the 1st half (yes…even the songs) but I thought the 2nd half went completely off the rails into yawnsville via a diversion at crazytown. That animation of her falling into the thames! Ha! It was like Wizard of Oz at the RFH all over again. 🙂 Can’t fault the performances, design and staging though.

    I’m beginning to think that perhaps I’m the only person in London who actually likes the Cottesloe.

  22. Decking Kits · Says:

    bar stools that are made from stainless steel are the best because they don’t tarnish often ‘~-

  23. lisa sworn Says:

    I saw it in Bath last night, I have never seen a production of anything, even the NYT production of Hamlet, where I didNOT want to applaud at the end, if this had been a meal I would have asked for my money back, then no doubt have been ill for days after. It was truly awful, I could not care less about any of them, and at the end, when the actors came to take their ,Sorry, not deserved applause, Tracy Ann Oberman ( sarah ) was wiping a tear away….I hope it was from shame. A self indulgent farce from start to finish, the best line, at the start, from The Mother…how hot am I ? that was it…

  24. It’s limping round the posher provinces (Bath, Cambridge, Brighton this week at Richmond) with a B-team cast and mixed reviews. A woman in the bar this evening overheard to say “well, Pippa really missed a stunner, an absolute stunner” although whether she was referring to the play, the girl with her tits out or the blonde in the rubber nurse outfit, I really couldn’t say.

    The first half went down a storm, even if Tracey-Ann Oberman (replacing La Williams as Sarah) is still living on her EastEnders characterisation, but we sort of lost the will to live once the other sister slipped from the bridge. Should really have finished with two choruses of Javert’s suicide solo from ‘Les Miserables’ and cashed in its chips at 9.30.

  25. […] Los Whinger del West End le dieron tres copas de tinto comentando: «Sí, es ambiciosa, pero hay demasiados escaparates que distraen, algunas escenas simplemente no funcionan y te resulta difícil preocuparte mucho por los personajes en medio de todas las travesuras enrevesadas». […]

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