Thursday, April 4, 2013

'Earthquakes in London' at the Pleasance, 3rd April 2013

I can't fault LAMDA for their ambition.  Earthquakes in London is a three hour epic beginning in 1968 and ending in the far flung future of the year 2525 (when man is still alive).  We get there through a kaleidoscope that takes in an environmental burlesque show; in utero foetuses screaming for help; hallucinogenic song and dance numbers; and bizarre schizophrenic delusions.  Also somewhere along the way, the world as we know it ends.  Not bad for a student production.

To be fair, as far as student productions go, LAMDA are a cut above pretty much everyone else around.  Before I went to their shows the very term 'student production' was enough to make my skin crawl.  I've sat through hours of badly acted, unfunny dreck, yet when I saw LAMDA's Joseph K last September I thought it was absolutely brilliant.  I'm pleased to say Earthquakes in London is similarly outstanding.   

The play, written by Mike Bartlett, premiered in 2010, and shows us the complex social and political web surrounding three sisters; Sarah (Louise Wright), a Liberal Democrat environment minister; Freya (Jennifer Kirby), a teacher of deaf children, currently heavily pregnant; and Jasmine (Helen Coles), a thrill-seeking, hedonistic, smart mouthed nineteen year old.  Their father Robert (Chris Levens) is divorced from them all, never having even met his youngest daughter.  Robert is an environmentalist scientist, riddled with guilt and self-loathing over having predicted global warming in the early 1970s yet placated with cash from the airline industry.  Now he preaches an apocalyptic vision of a world about to violently shake the fleas of humanity from its back.  

Most of the events take place in an immediately recognisable London; a whirl of parties, expensive restaurants, pop music, drugs and designer clothing - all drowning in a sea of alcohol.  At one point a character angrily shouts that we're living in a Weimar Republic, sedating ourselves with hedonism, wilfully blinding ourselves to the evil and misery just around the corner.  Much of the narrative explores the various ways to mentally cope with an oncoming apocalypse.  The end of the world is quite terrifyingly described, a frightening monologue describing a ruined, chaotic London.  Lines like "remember when you could walk down Oxford Street?" sent a shiver down my spine. This nightmare future feels neither unlikely nor far away.

The three sisters are heavily symbolically weighted.  They fit the classic crone, mother and maiden triumvirate to a tee; the 'triple goddess' referring to the waxing and waning moon with attendant imagery of natural cycles of death and rebirth - cycles referred to explicitly by their father, Robert.  Within the play the destruction of the environment is the domain of the male characters; most notably the Satanic airline executives warping the truth with the power of capitalism.  Conversely, the women in the play represent balance, creation and unity - the most direct example being Robert's nurse Mrs Andrews (Umi Shakti), who is used as a metaphoric Mother Nature in controlling the ecosystem of the Robert's house.  

The sisters also demonstrate three common ways to deal with an oncoming environmental catastrophe.  Sarah attempts to bargain, negotiating limits on the expansion of airports, trying to bend an existing system to her will, refining youthful idealism into political pragmatism.  Freya, heavily pregnant, is terrified of the world she's about to deliver a child into.  She sinks into suicidal, hallucinatory depression, smoking, drinking and wandering aimlessly around the city.  Jasmine embodies a youthful nihilism, believing that trying to change things at this point is just pissing in the wind, so "fuck it, let's just get drunk".    All three are presented as both valid courses of action and lacking at the same time.  

Make no mistake though, Earthquakes in London isn't some preachily depressing environmentalist screed, it's one of the funniest and most energetic shows I've seen in ages.  Everyone in this production gets at least one brilliantly funny moment, though specific praise has to go to Ekow Quartey, Alex Zook and Nathan Turner, all of whom cracked up the audience so much the cast had to wait for the laughter to die down.  It's a witty, excellently written play, but even so I suspect the cast didn't quite realise well some lines of dialogue were going to go down.  A line like "clearly this is an outstanding suit" (someone correct me on this if I've got the line wrong) brought the house down, easily the biggest laugh of the night.  It's not even an obviously funny line, but Quartey's timing and delivery is utterly impeccable.

It's also impressive the way the drama shifts from the comedic and surreal to serious without missing a beat.  Despite the frequent dips into cartoonish caricature, I was surprised when I realised that I'd become invested about the central relationship between the father and his daughters.  The scene where Robert explains to his daughter that he's never really loved any of his children, only pretending to for the sake of his wife is just a great bit of acting, the tears in his eyes feeling genuine.  As we inch towards the climax things get increasingly doomy: with suicides, divorces and attempted self abortions stacking up on top of each other - not to mention that the environment is about to shit itself and die.  It's a credit to the skill of these actors that they're able to shift gears so rapidly, giving later scenes an unexpected gravitas, especially considering that ten minutes before someone was dancing a little jig while dressed as a polar bear.

Effective melodrama aside, it's going to be the musical numbers that stick longest in the mind.  The show has an outstanding soundtrack; a burlesque dance set to There She Goes, My Beautiful World by Nick Cave; a singalong to Arcade Fire's Rebellion (Lies); and a nightmarish Hampstead Heath march of designer mums set to Goldfrapp's Happiness.  There's even (and I can't believe I'm saying this) a enjoyable Coldplay song, perhaps it's because it's being used to illustrate the boringness of a character, but it works, and frankly, if a show can make me tolerate Coldplay it's worked miracles.  But the most effective song is easily Marina and the Diamond's I Am Not a Robot, which is deployed with sheer laser guided precision.  Before last night I thought the song was pretty good, but now every time I hear it I'm going to think of Jennifer Kirby and the rest of the cast wrestling the song from mournful lament to triumphant chorus. 

LAMDA are putting on some great work this spring, although I'm not sure anything else I'll see will live up to this, a play that felt almost tailor-made to my sensibilities.  It's an ambitious play to stage, anyone putting on a production of this might feel like they'd bitten off more than they could chew.  But this production is unquestionably fantastic in every way I can think of.  By the way, as a LAMDA production, tickets are free - and they're still available!  Snap them up!  Go and see it!

'Earthquakes in London' is on at the Pleasance on the 4th, 5th, 24th, 25th and 26th of April.  Tickets available here.

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