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Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams star as sisters in this wildly ambitious new play from Lucy Kirkwood
There’s a scene in Lucy Kirkwood’s new play in which the entire universe ends. Now, you’ll have to take it on faith that that’s not much of a spoiler. But it is a fairly solid example of one way in which ‘Mosquitoes’ almost laughably transcends its trad set up of a drama about two bickering sisters.
Nonetheless, it is a drama about two bickering sibs, one a success, the other a fuckup. Most of the fun in this often very funny play comes from the clash and spark between Olivia Colman’s disintegrating bundle of contradictions Jenny and Olivia Williams’s sensible-ish Alice, a scientist working to discover the secrets of existence at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. They’re not the most plausible characters in the world, but the damage, warmth and codependency between them feels true. It is a drama of huge ideas – the need for logic and irrationality, faith and science, to co-exist together; the idea of love as a physical bond to the universe – married to an almost soapy, melodramatic plot. But the writing and the lead performances are strong enough to sell it to us. Colman, in particular, has an easy, give-no-fucks charisma that doesn’t make Jenny a more realistic character, but does make her a tremendously enjoyable one.
Plot-wise, it’s substantially set in Geneva, where a boozy Jenny is attempting to get over a devastating personal tragedy by foisting herself on her sister and her awkward teen son Luke (Joseph Quinn) – both of whom are still haunted by the disappearance of Luke’s dad, years ago. Also in tow is their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer, very amusing), an even more brilliant scientist than Alice, who enjoys cheerily pointing out her daughters’ flaws, but may be on the cusp of physical and mental decline.
Kirkwood lobs so much in that it’s often hard to stay on top of it all. It’s not so much that the plot is overegged – though it kind of is – but that the tone rarely settles down. In particular the collision between glib, sassy humour and bleak personal tragedy feels awkward: it never has the emotional heft it might if left to breathe a bit, and perhaps even feels a bit callous. It’s a domestic drama done at the scale of Kirkwood’s globetrotting thriller ‘Chimerica’, which is kind of ridiculous, but again, ‘Mosquitoes’ carries it off, in no small part thanks to Rufus Norris’s big, brash direction. Full of projected galaxies and cosmic cacophony, he attacks ‘Mosquitoes’ like an action movie, and it’s tough enough to handle it.
The author’s elegiac recent Royal Court hit ‘The Children’ shared some similar concerns, though it was a stronger play, and at least as smart. But under these lab conditions – in this theatre, with this cast and this director – this younger sibling is nearly its equal. Like the universe itself, it’s sometimes hard to see exactly how or why ‘Mosquitoes’ works – but it does.
'Mosquitoes' is sold out at the National Theatre but day-seats and Friday Rush tickets will be available throughout the run.