On the expansive stage of the Roborough Studios, a line of six or so actors queue for Starbucks – now, a universal synecdoche of capitalism’s occasionally damaging self-interest – while the audience makes their way in for the opening night of EuTCo’s second production of this term. The room is wide, and chairs stretch out to either end while only being a few people deep. Despite its regular use by University theatre companies, the studio does not seem to be a theatrical space; the acoustics of the room combined with initial tech clunkiness make the opening exchanges of the play hard to hear above a heavy dance anthem, played a little too loud overhead.
Mike Bartlett’s play Earthquakes in London received critical acclaim upon its premiere at the Royal National’s Cottesloe Theatre in 2010. The story separately traces the lives of three sisters, each tableau being played in its respective stage space, while their distanced father – a prominent climate scientist – becomes easily beguiled with fame and money, before predicting the environmental apocalypse. Under the bold direction of Madeleine Allardice and Daniel Kirby, the cast cleverly unify the consciously individualised stage spaces, gaining needed cohesion to what seems at times an overly verbose script.
The play worked best at its most consciously absurd and exaggerated humorous moments
Standout performances include Esme Lonsdale as Peter, the 14 year-old boy stifled in agitated excitement. Withstanding an unexpected plot turn in the second act, Lonsdale delicately portrays the internal and external alienation of ADHD and autism, while brilliantly executing the character with just enough tasteful humour that it doesn’t become patronising. The three sisters are also of particular note; Annie Hammond perfects the bitterly cutting role of the sarcastic youngest sibling Jasmine, nonchalantly dealing with her father’s absence (“I’m different from the others, you’d have liked me”), while elder sisters Freya (Sophie Harrison) and Sarah (Megan Luke) play the respective roles of depressed mother-to-be and career obsessed cabinet minister, both of whom gradually lose touch with their private spheres and family relationships, without fault.
The play worked best at its most consciously absurd and exaggerated humorous moments. From processions of pregnant, grinning women, cradling their stomachs with synchronised dance movements, to a short-haul flight where the air hostesses’ safety routine became more and more sexually and rhythmically exaggerated the longer it continued. The production was not without its moments of considered whimsy, all of which worked fantastically. Where it fell down was at no fault of the company or direction; the script attempted to indulge itself in too many grand narratives, without executing any before moving to the next. By the second act, the topical climate apocalypse, lodged in recent memory with Fossil Free Exeter marches, was largely forgotten in place of melodramatic Biblical analogies hinting at narratives of redemption, salvation and the second coming.
Simon Marshall, playing Sarah’s reclusive husband Colin, and Dylan Frankland, the passionate environmentalist, provide the most touching and poignant moments of sadness and activism. Marshall’s musical transition from buying a Coldplay record on his way back from Tesco’s, to determinately dancing to Arcade Fire (having been told how middle aged Viva La Vida is), is surprisingly hitting as he forages into a potential affair. On the other hand, Frankland appears genuinely angered when told that air travel will continue to happen, (accidentally) breaking a champagne flute in the process, unwavered by corporate temptations.
Amid the rhizomatic squalor of the script, Bartlett manages to conjure some political gems: “It’s Cabaret, we’ve got our heads down and we’re dancing and drinking as fast as we can. The enemy is on its way, but this time it doesn’t have guns and gas, it has storms and earthquakes.” Jasmine takes another swig of Ouzo, Tom flips over another chair, Colin buys another plum instead of a guava, and it all means a great deal. EuTCo have taken a great leap outside their usual canonical focus with this production – maybe, at times, they’ve jumped a little too far – but the extra mileage is refreshing and highly commendable if not perfect. Each member of the cast’s willingness to experiment with character and situation makes this production a resounding success.
Catch EUTCO’s production of Earthquakes in London tonight or tomorrow at the Roborough Studios. The performances will support Devon Development Education, Lightening Appeal, in aid of purchasing lightening conductors for rural primary schools in Uganda. To find out more about the charity, click here.