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.