Award winning playwright Lucy Kirkwood has never been afraid of touching on difficult topics in her work. This time around, the Royal Court Theatre presents her latest piece: The Children, an affecting play about aging, life and letting go.
The Children is set in an isolated coastal English house, the sound of waves discernible from inside. The cottage is inhabited by an elderly couple, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), who in their younger years were nuclear scientists and engineers at the nearby plant. Rocked by an earthquake, the area has been polluted with radiation after the plant is damaged, and the couple lead a simple life on rations and little electricity. But all this threatens to fall apart when ex-colleague Rose (Francesca Annis) shows up suddenly, and asks for a favour. Rose’s previous affair with Robin puts her under immediate suspicion, but it’s not until halfway through the play that her true intentions are revealed.
The setting of The Children is rooted in reality, yet oddly surreal and almost post-apocalyptic from the way the characters live their lives in isolation. Still, its characters struggle to keep up appearances, from drinking tea, listening to Radio 4 in the morning and keeping up with a yoga routine. Miriam Buether’s set is simple and homely, yet is able to evoke a sense of emptiness and longing, highlighting the key question the play asks – what is our purpose in life, and should we sacrifice our own happiness for the greater good? I was very impressed by the sunlight streaming in through the window that slowly gave way to darkness, courtesy of lighting designer Peter Mumford, possibly referencing the aging character’s lives, like a waning light about to go out.
Clocking in at 115 minutes with no intermission puts it at risk of dragging, but Kirkwood’s dialogue is always snappy and inserts curt, on the nose black humour at just the right times, smacking at hard truths while also being extremely funny. Kirkwood knows how to work an audience, and brings them on a character study of each of the ex-nuclear scientists, teasing hints at first but eventually fully fleshing out their life stories, hopes and dreams, and genuinely makes the audience care for and worry for each one. In short, there’s never a dull moment in the play, and I was constantly kept on the edge of my seat, wanting to know all three characters more intimately.
What truly makes this play shine is the more than capable cast, all of whom handle the material with aplomb and endear themselves easily. I was personally most drawn to Deborah Findlay, who does an excellent job of showing the maternal, animal loving Hazel’s worry and attempt to distract herself by obssessing over every detail in the house and her routine, and by the end of it all, is left to a rather sympathetic fate. Francesca Annis also manages to balance an aura that is simultaneously sinister and pitiful, swooping in unannounced and almost manipulative with her unminced words. Throughout the run, I found myself constantly questioning her motives and drive. One particularly pertinent scene sees all three characters start dancing to an old song before Hazel does an about face and loses her temper, to which Rose responds by kissing Robin on the lips, leading all hell to break loose. Time and time again, we think we know Rose, only to have that rug pulled out from under us, changing her character from simply a survivor to something much more complicated, a woman with no limits now that she has nothing left to live for. Finally, Ron Cook’s character appears to be just a pretty standard kooky, pervy old man at first, brewing his own wine, making jibes at his wife and fantasising about young women, but delivers a kind of roguish charm, and later on, peels back layer after layer to reveal a deep sense of care for Hazel, and a fear that he’s lived a life of regrets.
The Children feels almost like a limbo between life and death, with its characters in their twilight years wondering whether they’ve done their part in life. This is a play for both the young and old, and an opportunity to reflect on our post-Brexit world, and whether the older generation needs to take responsibility and fix their own mistakes or absolve it all and pass them on to the next. It’s a very heavy piece, and by the end of The Children, I felt a deep twang of sadness and existential dread. Kirkwood does a peerless job of pacing her clever script, unafraid to speak dark, ugly truths and balancing it perfectly with jokes that provoke nervous laughter. I urge you to see this play, and beyond its concerns of nuclear power, think about the heavy future consequences that may arise from the decisions made today.
The Children plays at the Royal Court Theatre, London till 14 January. Tickets available here