thu 25/04/2024

The Children, Royal Court Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Children, Royal Court Theatre

The Children, Royal Court Theatre

Drama about generational tension and nuclear disaster is metaphor-heavy and lacks energy

Toothsome: Ron Cook and Francesca Annis in ‘The Children’Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Over the past decade, one new theme in particular has emerged in contemporary British new writing: generational conflict. In several bright new offerings – such as James Graham’s The Whisky Taster (2010) and Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love (2012) – the baby boomers are condemned for having a cushy lifestyle while their kids, the millennials, are having a hard time (indebted, homeless and underemployed).

Play after play asks: will the new generation ever enjoy the same living standards as their parents? Lucy Kirkwood’s latest, a follow up to her big 2013 hit Chimerica, is the newest, rather offbeat, addition to this debate.

You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this show

The Children is set entirely in a cottage on the East coast of England, in the wake of a Fukushima-like nuclear power plant disaster. It focuses on a baby-boomer couple, Robin and Hazel, who are now in their 60s and retired from their jobs as nuclear scientists. The reactor which has malfunctioned is a cab ride from their doorstep, and they have embraced a simpler lifestyle – growing their own vegetables and doing yoga – in a world of power cuts and other disruptions. They have four grown-up children, who have left home. The story starts when Rose, who was once one of their colleagues, arrives at their door. Since they haven’t seen each other for 30-odd years, what does she want?

You don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy this show: it doesn’t take much to work out that one man and two women with a shared past equals a love triangle, and pretty soon this is exactly the situation facing us. Or is it? Why has Rose decided to visit Robin and Hazel so soon after the nuclear disaster? Gradually, and it would be a massive spoiler to say any more, the real reason for her interest in them becomes clear, and her request is very strange indeed. What began as a comedy of manners, with laughs aplenty, eventually starts, like the setting summer sun, to glow with a much more sinister hue. As darkness falls, the subject of old age and death strides centre stage.

Kirkwood neatly satirizes some of the absurdities of these aging baby boomers: the parsnip wine, the healthy salads, the organic smallholding, and the sloganising (“If you’re not going to grow, don’t live”). But her best throw is the use of the image of the nuclear power station as a metaphor for the older generation: it brings life, but it is also potentially a fatal use of scarce resources. The play’s central idea of a heroic, if suicidal, gesture by the oldies is both original and a strain on credibility. And although Robin and Hazel’s children remain offstage, they are constantly in their parents’ thoughts, especially the problematic first-born Lauren (who Rose knew as a small child). Frustratingly, we find out too little about her “anger” and her point of view.

James Macdonald’s production is atmospheric and meditative, thanks to Miriam Buether’s claustrophobic design and Peter Mumford’s lighting (pictured above), making the play something of a companion piece to Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, which returns to this venue in January. Despite some dips in energy, and a painfully inconclusive ending, there is much to enjoy here, with good performances from Deborah Findlay as the motherly Hazel, Francesca Annis as the ice queen Rose and Ron Cook as the down-at-heel Lothario, Robin. The dance sequence (thank you, James Brown) is wonderful, but the autumnal tone of the piece still needs improving.


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