The Children is the latest play from Lucy Kirkwood, a woman also responsible for such exciting work as Chimerica and NSFW, so I had high expectations for this. And it didn’t disappoint. But here’s the thing – this play didn’t disappoint in the most surprising of ways as much of this play is unexpected, and so much about it is innovative and brave.
We are set in the cottage kitchen of a retired couple somewhere in the UK. Only this isn’t present day but a dystopian future. The couple, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) happen to be former nuclear scientists living on the edge of an exclusion zone in the aftermath of a terrible nuclear accident.
Since the blast, an event so dreadful that water is polluted and energy supplies remain unreliable, the couple have been trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping up a routine to keep spirits upbeat, but their small lives are turned upside down when Rose (Francesca Annis) a former work colleague, appears out the blue.
And it really is out the blue, as the first thing we see is Rose with a bloody nose – the result of a shock defensive reflex action from Rose (Deborah Findlay) – who not only did not know Rose was planning to visit, but actually thought her former friend died sometime in the previous thirty years since the two women last saw each other.
It’s a witty start to the story, but why has Rose suddenly appeared again after all these years? What are her intentions? And why now?
I’m always one for dystopias, but what captivates most in this two-hour show is its relaxed, languid pace. Yes, your brain is working hard to fill in the gaps, trying to work out what is being left unsaid, but most dystopias are punchy and dramatic; yet The Children is comparatively slow. It rolls along, always teetering on the pedestrian, which is both realistic and brave. The lady next to me fell asleep but I though this slower pace only added to the intrigue.
I don’t want to give too much away about the puzzle at the heart of this play, but Lucy Kirkwood deserves so much applause for her writing. Not only has she reflected an age group that is usually patronised as twee and out-of-touch with three fully-fleshed out characters full of humour, hubris, contradictions and flaws, but she has also tackled the important theme of inter-generational responsibilities. What does the older generation owe to those coming through? Is there a debt that must be repaid? And yet, for how long must parents remain guardians of their children, of the next generation?
And it would be terribly remiss of me to not mention the three performances here. They are terrific. Deborah Findlay is marvellous as Hazel, a wife and a mother who loves way too much – always there to take calls from her daughter (who is evidently struggling with mental illness), and she fusses over her husband (Ron Cook) putting his health first even when he doesn’t.
Her cheer and warmth is infectious, and makes for a superb contrast with Francesca Annis as the cool and closed Rose. The way these two women circle each other – past events between them hinted at but not made explicit – is what draws you in.
Their history is revealed, as is the reason for Rose’s return, but I admired the ambiguous finale. Like life, much of what we do, and the reasons for the decisions we make, remains unexplained and complicated. An absorbing production from a talented team of cast and creatives.
Royal Court, London to January 14, 2017
All production images © Johan Persson