The first line of award-winning playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s new play sets the tone for what is to come: slightly ominous, slightly accusatory, tension hidden under a blanket of small talk. The question is for Hazel (Deborah Findlay), a fussy, yoga-practising retired nuclear scientist who lives in an isolated cottage on the coast with her husband (Ron Cook) in the aftermath of a power station disaster. Rose (Francesca Annis), the asker, is a mysterious character – an old friend the couple haven’t seen in almost forty years.
The Children is a slow-burning drama, a platform for an array of discomfiting questions about societal responsibility and the legacy the old pass down to the young. The contrast between the two women highlights these questions. Hazel is taking care of herself. She is exercising, eating healthily, doing anything she can to extend her life a little longer. She has children. Four. She needs to be around for them. Rose, by contrast, does not seem to take good care of herself. She smokes, drinks and enjoys life while she’s living it. She does not have children, a partner or obligations. Nobody needs her. Both Annis and Findlay give strong performances, creating recognisable women from today’s society, which makes their convictions realistic. Though this is a post-apocalyptic drama, its domestic setting grounds it in reality. The plausibility of the situation makes it all the more chilling. The character of Robin, Hazel’s husband and previous love interest of Rose, creates substantial tension between the two women which heightens the differences between them. James MacDonald’s sophisticated production plays these out subtly and builds to moments of confrontation well.
Kirkwood takes her time, which means that much of the play is backstory, recounting the history of the characters. While this does not feel forced, I do wish she’d get to the crux of the dilemma quicker. This is when the play is at its most compelling: when the real reason for Rose’s visit is revealed and the consciences of the two women come up against each other.
Miriam Buether’s design successfully creates a normal home setting (albeit a sparse one), but slightly off-kilter. This adds to the sense of not-quite-right-ness which pervades the piece and ultimately ramps up to guilt in the closing scenes. Peter Mumford’s lighting design is spot on. The use of candles creates an atmosphere effectively, and the closing scene is poignant and exceptionally beautiful, due to both the writing and the stunning lighting.
This is a quietly devastating play that contains a great deal of questions. However, Kirkwood’s script never feels overloaded or crammed full. The Children proves she is a dramatist of great skill, able to handle her material with finesse. Like Ella Hickson’s Oil, this is a play that considers how the future will play out based on the frivolity of today, and who will bear the brunt of that. By children do we mean the future generation, or are we talking about our own personal children? Which means more to us, and will we sacrifice ourselves for either?