Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 12 June 2021
You know when you are watching a play, and you become acutely aware of how an actor is moving around the stage and what they are doing with their hands. It feels conscious and, as a result, distracting.
This was how Walden started. I felt like I was watching a series of acting and directing decisions rather than a story. Maybe it was nerves, this being early in the run.
But it wasn’t the only distraction. Amy Berryman’s debut is set in the near future when the earth is either beyond saving or saveable with radical lifestyle changes – depending on your perspective. Those in the former camp are in the process of setting up alternative places for humankind to live on the moon and potentially mars.
Twin sisters Stella (Gemma Arterton) and Cassie (Lydia Wilson) started on the same path. They followed their late astronaut father into working for NASA but for reasons only gradually revealed, Stella has turned her back on science and space.
She now lives a simple life with her fiancé Bryan (Fehinti Balogun) in a cabin in the woods. They grow their own food, and Stella works in the local bar. Bryan is ‘Earth Advocates’, an activist organisation determined to show that the planet will heal itself by living with minimal environmental impact.
Cassie, meanwhile, has just returned from a year-long moon mission to great acclaim. Invited to the cabin, it is quickly obvious this isn’t going to be a relaxed and fun sibling reunion.
Where this play worked for me is in the intricate portrayal of the sisters’ relationship. It was an honest and very human depiction of dreams, aspiration, pressure, jealousy and disappointment. The story is occasionally tinged with irony; lack of communication leads to bad communication and misunderstandings.
Balogun’s Bryan is far from the fanatical EA member first hinted at; instead, he’s level headed, warm and full of good sense. A character you enjoy being around.
But here’s the rub. The promised tension between the differing beliefs of EA member Bryan and NASA scientist Cassie is never realised. Bryan is too reasonable or not fanatical enough, and Cassie doesn’t put up much of a fight for her beliefs.
This leads me to the second distraction: How unconvinced I was about the NASA plotline. Cassie can’t believe that Stella has turned her back on science and groundbreaking work, I couldn’t believe that Stella had ever been a NASA scientist. Sorry, Gemma.
It would have been easy to give the sisters alternative glittering yet more grounded careers and still have different views about saving the planet and humankind.
Perhaps it would have created a more realistic and, therefore, more polarising debate.
Theatre has never really done well with narratives around space, and here it felt like a choice to add drama which ultimately failed.
I really wanted to like Walden, it was my first trip to the theatre since they were last open in early December, but it just didn’t deliver the promised tension and drama, so I’m giving it two and a half stars.
It is one hour and 45 minutes long without an interval and is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 12 June. Click here to go to the official website for more details and tickets.
Have you seen Walden? Would love to hear your views.
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