The Children review – Kirkwood's slow-burning drama asks profound questions

Royal Court, London
Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay give fine performances in a post-apocalyptic play that is genuinely disturbing

Lucy Kirkwood astonished us in 2013 with the epic scope of Chimerica, dealing with global politics. She now follows it with a three-character play which, although smaller in scale, still impresses by its capacity to raise big issues; in particular how people in the future will react to the poisoned legacy of the present.

The problem with most post-apocalyptic plays is that they confront us with a totally unrecognisable world: Kirkwood, however, suggests people still listen to Radio 4 and dance to James Brown. Hazel and Robin, two retired nuclear scientists living in a coastal cottage in the wake of a disaster at a local power station, seek to preserve a semblance of normality. Even though electricity is rationed and a Geiger counter is on hand to check for signs of radiation, Robin now farms, the super-organised Hazel practises yoga and the pair keep in touch with their eldest daughter.

But when Rose, a fellow nuclear physicist whom they haven’t seen for 38 years, suddenly turns up, their precariously ordered existence is disrupted. Has Rose come to reignite her old affair with Robin or does she have some darker purpose? We are well into Kirkwood’s two-hour play before we have an answer.

While Ibsen could get away, as in Rosmersholm, with a play that recapitulates the past to explain the present, I wished that Kirkwood had cut more quickly to the main moral dilemma.

But, once it shifts into fourth gear, her play grips compulsively. Kirkwood brilliantly contrasts two women with polarised, but equally valid attitudes. It is not simply that Hazel has four children while Rose has chosen childlessness. It is that Hazel, even in a time of crisis, exudes domestic efficiency and argues: “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.” Rose, you feel, takes life as it comes and is more reckless. The skill of the play lies in debating which of the two, when the chips are down, has the more active conscience.

A world of precarious normality … The Children.
A world of precarious normality … The Children. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It’s a slow-burn play but one that raises profound questions about whether having children sharpens, or diminishes, one’s sense of social responsibility.

James Macdonald’s production and Miriam Buether’s design are equally meticulous in creating a world of precarious normality: the cottage itself is almost spartan in its severity. The performances are also very good. Deborah Findlay as Hazel is the epitome of rural capability yet subtly hints at her unresolved rage, based on past experience, towards her unwanted visitor. Francesca Annis as Rose cleverly suggests a woman who nurses private and public secrets and who is insouciantly aware of her sexual power. The hardest part is that of Robin, but Ron Cook admirably conveys the unreformed roguishness of a one-time laboratory lech.

Kirkwood takes her time. She has, however, written a genuinely disturbing play: one not simply about nuclear power but about the heavy price we may pay in the future for the profligacy of the present. Whether you are a parent or not, the play leaves you an abundance of ideas on which to ruminate.

• At the Royal Court, London, until 14 January. Box office: 020-7565 5000.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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