At The Royal Court Theatre (Jerwood Downstairs)
2nd December, 2017
‘When we have a picnic or, camping we don’t just clear up our own litter, we go around and pick other people’s too.’
With fond memories of ‘Chimerica’ three years ago, dealing with global issues, I was looking forward to Lucy Kirkwood’s production. Honouring the Royal Court’s commitment to producing new work that reflects the issues of modern society, ‘The Children’ is in part a dystopic play. It opens up to Miriam Buether’s unassuming cottage kitchen on the ‘east’ coast by the sea, in the aftermath of a Fukushima-like nuclear incident (by implication in Suffolk, near Sizewell B). Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Rose (Francesca Annis) reunite after 38 years. Both are scientists who helped to build the nuclear plant that has contaminated the country. In the years since Hazel has had four children with her husband, Robin, (Ron Cook) while Rose has led a more itinerant life, spending time in America. Now Rose arrives and railroads their conscience with a proposition for them. When Robin arrives, the home-made parsnip wine start to flow and the conversation takes a deeper, darker turn. Eventually, Robin coughs up blood and a Geiger counter crackles madly as it is passed across his clothes. All three are dying but some are more in denial than others. The small kitchen set is heavy with what is unspoken and what each woman is afraid to ask.
Sadly, Kirkwood packs too much on the drama plate: huge themes, such as climate change, ageing, death and the question of who should shoulder responsibility in a world of shrinking resources and rising temperatures. At times the play feels heavy-handed in its use of metaphor. As the electricity kicks in after a power failure, Hazel confesses: ‘I don’t know how to live with less’. The play isn’t about the dangers of nuclear energy but the power plant is a metaphor of the problems bequeathed by the Baby-boomers on to the next generation. Its suggestion that sacrifice is the only solution is both unpalatable and heavy handed.
The play takes its title from Hazel and Robin’s oft-referred to offspring, who never appear and who act as a symbol for future generations. ‘Think of the children!’ the refrain often goes, but sometimes we forget to think of the parents.
‘The Children’ begins as a comedy of manners with flashes of satirical brilliance. I loved the throwback to the once improvised dance to ‘ Ain’t It Funky Now.’ A perfect antidote to the less than convincing unspoken love triangle. Soon the conversational humour wears thin.
Between the women lies amiability both genuine and false. I found Francesca Annis’s character unconvincingly flat in her readiness to take responsibility, just tedious. Equally dissatisfying is Deborah Findlay who portrays Hazel, the organic-farm earth mother who is only now facing up to environmental catastrophe. Ron Cook, meanwhile, is miscast as a pervy old rocker, making jibes at his wife and who is still lusting. All become caricatures of their former selves. What does work is how the play deals with aging.
‘The Children’ fits the current trend of no-interval, two-hour straight-through plays – putting demands on the audience. James Macdonald’s production could certainly do with an injection of pace to manage this.