Lucy Kirkwood’s highly anticipated new play sounds ostensibly simple at first; it is three people in a cottage teetering on a cliff at the end of the world. But Kirkwood’s writing is anything but. She soars from achingly funny exchanges between two old frenemies and captures the clumsiness of their first encounter in years so authentically. She then slows everything down and strips all trace of bravado from her characters to expose their deep-held fears, secrets and resentments. It is beautifully and intelligently layered; a tapestry for the twenty-first century.
Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) are retired nuclear engineers living the good life in a clifftop cottage when they receive an impromptu visit from their former colleague, Rose (Francesca Annis). Robin is out tending his cows when Rose arrives so it is left to Hazel to welcome her, which doesn’t get off to an entirely smooth start. The tension between the two women is deliciously awkward throughout the play but makes particular impact in the play’s first half-hour. This tension bloats when Robin appears and seems to dwarf the size of the room, making it stiflingly crowded despite only containing three people. Over the course of the evening in which the action of the play unfolds, we learn that an earthquake struck a few months back, causing a tsunami to damage the coastal nuclear power station where the three previously worked and initiate a radiation leak. This disaster frames the real reason for Rose’s visit and leads her to ask the ultimate sacrifice of Hazel and Robin, who are a long time married and the parents of four children. Here, the play’s title truly comes into focus and provokes some pivotal questions: Is it right that the children should pay for the sins of the parents? Is it selfish to bring children into such a fragile world in the first place? Are we just raising them like lambs to the slaughter?
Francesca Annis as Rose is astoundingly good. She begins the play alone onstage and immediately carries so much presence. She is cool, calm and a warrior. When we meet her, she is recovering from a nose-bleed. Remaining in her blood-stained shirt for the rest of the play, she appears always ready for battle. Deborah Findlay’s performance is also wonderful; straining against her character’s bitterness towards Rose and fiercely in love with her family. I did however struggle to warm to Ron Cook’s Robin in his early moments, feeling the role was slightly over-played which upset the balance and subtlety of the other performances. But I was won round as the character began to reveal a certain tenderness which made Cook shine.
The Children is an incredible study of human relationships and emotions, set amidst Miriam Buether’s beautiful design of a floating white box that heaves like the hungry ocean. James Macdonald’s elegant direction allows Kirkwood’s script to thrive and undulate like a piece of music. He lands the play’s “moments” in such a way that they really hit home without the sledgehammer effect, especially the chilling use of the Geiger counter and the dance section which soothes the surrounding open wound created by Rose. It is a first-class example of a pressure-cooker situation; the external threat hanging in the air with the weight of the tumbling tsunami that caused this mess.
© Hannah Roe, 2016
Playing at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, SW1W 8AS
Closes 14th January
Weekday and Saturday evenings at 7.30pm
Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm
Age guidance: 14+
Tickets from £12
Running time: 1hr 55mins, no interval
Cast: Francesca Annis, Deborah Findlay, Ron Cook
Writer: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: James Macdonald
Designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Sound Designer: Max Pappenheim