Gemma Arterton explores life, the universe and everything in this frankly bonkers debut play by young American writer Amy Berryman. Set in a near future where putative settlements on the Moon and Mars offer escape from the poisoned earth, Walden is by turns enthralling and exasperating, full of big ideas but portentous and mannered. It’s a bold opening for producer Sonia Friedman’s RE:EMERGE season at the Pinter Theatre, aimed at jump-starting the West End. I kind of loved it.
Arterton, elegant and brittle, is Stella, a former NASA hotshot who abandoned it all to live a rural, self-sufficient cabin life with her new boyfriend Bryan (magnetically expansive Fehinti Balogun). He’s an Earth Advocate, part of a back-to-nature movement dedicated to healing a world blighted by climate change, war and flood, and opposed to galactic colonialism. So the mood is tense as they await the arrival of Stella’s twin Cassie (guarded, pent-up Lydia Wilson) who’s just grown a plant on the Moon and seems to have stolen the future planned for Stella.
Apocalyptic environmentalism, wealth inequality, geopolitics, sibling rivalry and a magnified version of the career vs kids debate all get a run out in a packed 100 minutes. Berryman cleverly presents the future as a tweaked version of the present: breathing masks, solar cars, transparent phones. But she also artificially stokes tension through snappish, overlapping dialogue and narrative timebombs: characters refer obliquely to traumatic events that are only explained much later.
Sometimes she wears her research and her influences on her sleeve: the title, pinched from Henry David Thoreau’s American naturalist classic, will resonate less here. Sometimes she exactly nails emotional truth, as when the twins recall their demanding astronaut father. “What a f***er.” “I miss him.” “Me too.”
Ian Rickson’s production embraces the American-ness of the whole thing: the characters are always either yapping combatively at each other in a confined room or lazily shooting the breeze on the porch. He draws fine, physically detailed performances from the three actors. Arterton is luminous, but better in moments of suppressed tension than the interludes of high emotion the script demands. Lydia Wilson, as always, speaks volumes with her quiet reserve. The revelation is Balogun. Wholesomeness is a hard trait to play, but he manages it, stealing every moment he’s in.
This is not a great play. But it is ambitious, engaged on many fronts, and forward looking in a way that’s rare for theatre: I’m always surprised how little sci-fi gets on stage. By splashing down with it in the becalmed West End, with such a talented and eye-catching cast and creative team, Sonia Friedman has, I think, achieved a rare kind of alchemy. I urge you to see it. You’ll have interesting arguments.
Until 12 June: haroldpintertheatre.com