A remote cabin in the woods and two people are anxiously preparing for the arrival of a very special guest. That is the set-up for Walden, one of the first post-lockdown plays to open on the West End. It is written by Amy Berryman and directed by Ian Rickson, setting the scene for an unusual story taking a place a couple of years into the future.
Stella (Gemma Arterton) and Bryan (Fehinti Balogun) are Earth Advocates and have put down roots in a vast forest somewhere in America among others like them. They hardly use electricity, they hunt and grow their own food and try their best to reverse their carbon footprint in order to save planet earth. Coming from completely different backgrounds, Stella and Bryan met a little over a year ago and have now resigned to a fairly normal life of engagement and offspring. Their piece of heaven is complete until Stella’s twin sister Cassie (Lydia Wilson) returns from her year-long mission of habituating the moon.
The sisters’ complicated past is slowly unravelled as the three of them come to talk about all things NASA, colonisation and planet earth. We learn about their relationship with their astronaut father, Stella’s love for naming things and the reason why they have not spoken in over eight years. And what happened when Stella left NASA and her twin sister was delegated to be THE person to colonise – sorry, habituate – the moon?
Walden dips its toes into several different contemporary disputes, but climate change is the big one; the discussion on whether we should save this planet or look for a new one to vandalise for “adventure”. However, it also questions what happens when you see someone live the life you wanted. Although these are important and extremely relevant questions, Walden never manages to fully submerge itself into one or the other.
Perhaps, this is due to the lack of connection between the actors. Where Arterton and Wilson try to build up a sisterly bond with strenuous awkwardness, Balogun fails to match that energy entirely as comic relief. The lack of chemistry between Arterton and Wilson makes the show appear like an awkward high school reunion but not a re-bonding moment – no matter how troubled their past was. Now and then the sisterly bond manages to show and puts a little smile on my face, but gives an insight into what Walden has the potential to be. The intricate and detailed set design by Rae Smith of a homely, cosy cabin is one of the things which elevates the play and breathes life into the performance.
Walden has the potential to be a moving and vivid story about our relationship with our planet and the people around us. As is, it stands as a two-hour delivery of dialogue on a lovingly decorated stage. Although full of interesting ideas entangled in a heartfelt story about sisterhood, it seems to be missing the highs and lows of a story arc.
Walden is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 12 June 2021. For more information and tickets visit Harold Pinter Theatre’s website.