After storming the West End with her widescreen political thriller ‘Chimerica’, Lucy Kirkwood has made quite the about turn with ‘The Children’, an intimate drama about three old friends teetering on the edge of extinction.
A freak earthquake has damaged a nuclear power station somewhere in the east of England (Sizewell in Suffolk?), leaving the immediate area uninhabitable and the inhabitable surrounds plagued by rolling blackouts. We never see the exact level of destruction, because the play is set in the pleasant kitchen of Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), a pair of retired sixtysomething scientists. The power doesn’t come on till 10pm and they’re forced to eat basic foodstuffs, but whether these are nationwide problems or simply because they live in rural isolation near the radiation zone is unclear.
A big part of the brilliance of Kirkwood’s play is how the nuclear scenario only half matters – it is important for all sorts of reasons, but you’d still have most of the play if it wasn’t there. It is a shadow of the future, but Kirkwood refuses to stray into post-apocalyptic genre territory and shies from bombast even on the big reveal.
‘The Children’ is tantalisingly hard to define: it is about aging and responsibility. It’s about a reckoning, as Hazel and Robin’s old friend Rose (Francesca Annis) shows up unexpectedly and casually drops a horrifying proposal. It is a love triangle. It is a youngish playwright writing inquisitively about her parents’ generation. It is very English, somewhat menacing, and often funny. The play takes its title from Hazel and Robin’s oft-referred to offspring, a constant weight and presence, who never actually appear in the play. And it perhaps also refers more obliquely to its three protagonists, who fall naturally into their youthful patterns – most of the laughs come from the chronically immature Robin, and a blazing argument over the correct use of a toilet.
What the ‘The Children’ is not is a polemic about the oft-cited irresponsibility of babboomers; instead it rather penetratingly asks what they owe younger generations, exactly.
James McDonald’s production is also a fine character piece: Annis’s reserved, sly Rose, Cook’s sometimes excruciatingly unreconstructed Robin and Findlay’s square, sentimental Hazel all spark off each other beautifully, old pals whose relationship remains alive and unstable. And the play itself feels like a nice piece of symmetry for a vintage Royal Court year, which began with McDonald directing a witty story about old people living in a post-disaster world – Caryl Churchill’s magnificent ‘Escaped Alone’ – now ends with one too.