If it’s possible to be a ‘hot young thing’ in the playwriting world, Lucy Kirkwood is just that. Over the course of roughly a dozen plays and at just 33 years-old she has become the most exciting new writer for the stage to come out of Britain in the last decade. Her 2013 play Chimerica, about the relationship between China and the US following the Tiananmen Square protests won five Olivier awards, including Best New Play, while last year’s Mosquitoes for the National Theatre achieved universally positive reviews. It’s no surprise that the MTC (and Sydney Theatre Company in co-production), leapt on The Children a mere twelve months after it closed at London’s Royal Court Theatre, in fact a Broadway transfer of that production just completed its run this month. This is storytelling hot stuff and it certainly feels vibrant and of the moment.
For a young woman, Kirkwood has amazing empathy for older characters, as the depth of emotional understanding of her three sixty to seventy-something protagonists is profoundly displayed. Hazel (Pamela Rabe) and Robin (William Zappa) are retired nuclear physicists, living in rural seclusion on the English coast after the fallout of a nuclear meltdown, brought about by a tsunami, much like the Fukushima disaster. Their world is one of subsistence living, with electricity being a limited resource they live frugally off the land, making their own vegetable wine and getting their protein from eggs and tinned tuna.
This quiet isolation is disturbed without warning by Rose (Sarah Pierse), a former work colleague and old friend who stirs up long-forgotten memories, uncovers distressing truths and brings a challenging proposal for the pair. In one act of two hours, a stunning number of big issues are covered, not the least being the responsibility our forebears have to those that follow them.
Rather than simply cutting to the chase, Kirkwood layers her story with attractively detailed intricacy, so that these aren’t simply two-dimensional cut-outs of sea-changing retirees, but individuals with wildly different approaches to both life and death. This does mean that the story is somewhat slow and heavy going in getting to its point, but once it does, the emotional jeopardy is beautifully played out as the contrasting nature of the characters allows for a debate of conscience that is heartbreakingly inevitable in its conclusion.
Hazel and Robin have children, while Rose has led a childless life; how that plays out against the larger question of their social responsibility in this seemingly peaceful post-apocalyptic world, is the weighty question at the heart of this story.
Sarah Goodes direction is as scrupulous as Hazel’s housekeeping, tidy, careful and well planned. Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume designs are very referential of the original production, a sparsely decorated seaside cottage in ‘bomb-shelter chic’ and practical, comfortable attire. Lighting designs by Paul Jackson evoke the ghosts of the tsunami, while Steve Francis’ compositions add subtle ambience but are too softly balanced to enhance the mood greatly.
Any production graced by either Pamela Rabe or Sarah Pierse is assured of at least one brilliant performance, with them both it’s an embarrassment of riches. Further William Zappa is a ready match to their sumptuously emotive performances and the trio do marvellous work at keeping up with Kirkwood’s overlapping and stammering dialogue.
Regardless of your age, this is a positively disquieting story that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve left the theatre.