In a contemporary coastal setting, two retired scientists (Hazel and Robin) move to an isolated cottage as the world around them crumbles following a catastrophic accident at the nuclear power station where they previously worked. One day there’s an unexpected new arrival, an old friend (Mary) they haven’t seen for almost 40 years. Why has she come – and why now?
Lucy Kirkwood’s near-future post-disaster drama, The Children, is a slow-burning script that challenges you to think about the current climate, our use of and dependency on modern technology and how fragile the balance is of the local ecosystem, never mind human relationships across the varying circles of intimacy. It is inspired (if that’s the appropriate word) by the real-life tragedy of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, where “the retired workforce from the nuclear power plant volunteered to go back to clean up*”. Playing out the narrative from the perspective of those entering their senior years, Kirkwood’s libretto poses a controversial question of whose lives in a post-apocalyptic setting have more value: those who have “paid their dues”, those young enough to have their entire lives set out before them, those with children, those without…?
With just three characters and the action all taking place continually in the coastal cottage kitchen (well designed and presented), this is intense and purposefully upsetting and challenging; challenging not just to the audience as onlookers, but also for Director Lisbeth Rake and the trio of actors to undertake, particularly as Chesil Theatre is one of the first amateur companies to secure the performing rights to this play.
All have moments when they impress. Mary Mitchell is extremely good in the role of Hazel; her nervousness, agitated efforts to maintain normality amongst rationed electricity, filtered water and a Geiger counter in the kitchen dresser, and concerns for her husband and children are all palpable, with her dialogue being fittingly paced to reflect thoughts flitting in and out of her mind, her dry pithy observations being well interposed. She and Peter Andrews (her husband, Robin) portray a credible bickering long-married couple, a couple who are both irritated by each other but who cannot live without the other. Andrews transitions well between the mischievous philanderer (exhibiting an aptitude for comedy), intolerant father and protective spouse, while Heather Bryant’s exposition of her moral dilemma is full of poignancy.
The overall pace is tricky to get right, with a lot of (presumably scripted) stage business at times slowing down the pace of dialogue delivery, where slicker interjections would have helped to give the production more dynamics. Despite valiant efforts to maintain credible onstage relationships, for me there were occasions when the characters failed to connect effectively with each other or the audience. However, there were also times when I felt completely drawn into their world and predicaments and felt genuinely emotional about the implications of what was happening or potentially about to happen.
Make no mistake – if you are looking for a piece of frivolous, trivial entertainment, then The Children is not for you. However, if you want to experience a topical, provocative and challenging play, laced with dark humour but reminiscent of the haunting When The Wind Blows, then make your way to Chesil Theatre in Winchester this week.
Performances continue from Monday 20 – Saturday 26 May, 7.45pm each evening, with a talk-back session with the cast and director after the performance on Tuesday 21 May.
* (from programme notes)