In 2013, Lucy Kirkwood made quite a splash with her multi-award-winning political drama Chimerica, in which the edgy relationship between China and America came under complex scrutiny when the photographer of that lone protestor in Tiananmen Square discovers the subject of this hauntingly iconic image may have emigrated to the United States. In her outstanding new play The Children, the splash Kirkwood makes is more modest in scale – there are only three characters in it – but the impact is bigger.
The setting is a small cottage on the east coast of England inhabited by Hazel (Francesca Annis) and Robin (Ron Cook), two retired nuclear physicists of “a certain age.” An earthquake has caused a Fukushima-like meltdown of the nearby nuclear plant where they once worked, and, despite the seeming normality of their lives (he’s now a farmer, she’s a jobbing housewife and mother of four concerned more with domesticity rather than science), it soon becomes clear they’re living under a cloud of radioactive fallout. Food is scarce and there is no electricity until 10:00 each night.
The third character is Rose (Deborah Findlay), an erstwhile friend and colleague. She’s been living and working in America and hasn’t seen Hazel and Robin in 38 years. Rose’s unannounced arrival creates an immediate tension between the two women, whose initial small-talk is an awkward procrastination of more serious issues, one of them being that Robin was something of a lady’s man in his day and had an affair with Rose before and after he married Hazel.
Although it is made quite clear that the sexual frisson between Robin and Rose hasn’t disappeared completely (a fact Hazel is well aware of), the real purpose of Rose’s visit is to persuade her long-standing friends to hasten their inevitable deaths by unselfishly helping to clean up the mess at the nuclear plant, thereby allowing the younger generation to live the rest of their lives without contamination.
Blaming the baby-booming generation of the 60s for a potential apocalyptic catastrophe, Kirkwood is, in essence, embarking on an extended guilt trip in which the sins of the fathers are being visited on their children. But there is nothing preachy about her approach. Everything springs convincingly from her strikingly defined trio of protagonists, whose revelations as the play slowly unfurls are as natural as they are unexpected. One of the highlights of the evening is an impromptu dance to Joe Brown’s "Ain’t It Funky Now” that develops effortlessly from the situation in which the characters find themselves and that beautifully and effectively adds further facets to their complex personalities.
When it comes to creating undercurrents of mood and tension, director James Macdonald has no equal. Blessed with a brilliant cast capable of expressing a full spectrum of emotions, often without uttering a word, he takes full advantage of their abilities to make every nuance and gesture meaningful.
Findlay, seemingly in control as Hazel, conceals a cruel, obsessive streak (especially when it comes to lavatories). Annis brings a distanced, unspoken mystique to the part of Rose that borders at times on game-playing. Cook as Robin, the most conflicted of the trio, mixes outward bonhomie and inner fear and frustration with the subtlest of gear changes.
Miriam Buether’s wonderfully detailed coastal cottage and Peter Mumford and Max Pappenheim lighting and sound design (respectively) add resonance to what might arguably be the best new British play of the year.