Does The Children Tell Us That Childhood Never Ends?
How would we fare should some kind of nuclear catastrophe befall us? The unstable situation in North Korea, the spread of Islamic State, the worry of a gang of extremists setting off a warhead in a crowded city; a state of fear exists, there can be no doubt about that.
Yet it is an abstract fear, one to which most of us give little attention, leaving it as an occasional gnaw in the pit of our stomach. Lucy Kirkwood’s disturbing production of The Children takes that vague discomfort and makes it real.
Get Tickets to The Children
You may never look at theater the same after seeing The Children.
But The Children is not some kind of post-apocalyptic disaster movie, a dystopia of mutating morals. No, domesticity is still the norm. A couple of middle aged nuclear scientists, Robin and Hazel, live quietly somewhere at the British seaside; the actual location is unimportant, but the implication is on the East Coast, near to the Sizewell B nuclear reactor. They should be enjoying an idyllic retirement following a lifetime of commitment; to their family, to their work, to social responsibility. But the apparent comfort of their existence is a veneer thinly painted.
Outside all is denied chaos. A series of catastrophic events have taken place connected to a nearby nuclear power station. In the cottage, however, normality almost exists: they listen to the radio, on a wind-up transistor. They make tea while a Geiger counter gently ticks away. Church bells ring, but muffled by some obstruction.
The arrival of Rose, a former colleague with whom Robin had an affair, ushers reality through the door. Hazel thought she was dead, but she seems to know the cottage with surprising intimacy; the pretense that all outside their doors is normal is challenged by the facts she reveals about the nearby nuclear reactor.
Rose’s cool and efficient exterior, though, has a no thicker skin than the fragile covering of Robin and Hazel’s existence. Conversation moves to children, and here Hazel has the upper hand over her contemporary.
Asking Big Questions
Yet we have the sense always that the story is about more than these three. The play is set in just one evening, but the metaphor is much greater than that. However, The Children never takes us too far into ‘the big questions’; just as we sense ourselves drifting into the perplexity of ‘Why?’, something darkly comic will draw us back. The sight of these three fine actors, all following the exit sign from the prime of life, bopping and jiving to Jackson Browne keeps our feet firmly planted in comic reality. But then, in proper life when something terrible happens, the following day is still one where the normal aspects of existence still continue.
The Children represents a move away from Kirkwood’s recent, award winning success, Chimerica, which took a sweeping examination of the Chinese-American relationships. This is a smaller story, placed in a simple set with just the three characters. Yet the questions it asks are no less important. The discomfort it raises no less thought provoking.
Directed by the award-winning James Macdonald, the play is performed by the same cast that took it on a highly successful and much acclaimed run in London’s ground-breaking venue, The Royal Court. Nearly two hours in length, with no intermission, the first fifty minutes sets the scene gently, and leaves the audience waiting for something to ignite. When it does, around half way in, the impact is stunning, and the second half flies by in a flash.
Ron Cook as Robin. the two-timing rogue with a heart of gold, gives an energetic performance; a one-time go-getter with the same drive in his heart, if not his starting-to-age bones. Fundamental goodness underpins all he does; he describes the life of the cows he tends daily on their farm to an enraptured Hazel, when in fact he is spending his time burying their corpses.
As the interloper Rose, Francesca Annis is perfect. An agitator, her measured exterior barely hides an inner turmoil as potent as the nearby failed reactor. But it is Deborah Findlay’s vulnerable, trusting and comically vicious Hazel who steals the show. Whether winding up the radio, or pinning down Rose as to what, exactly, she has deposited in the macerator operated downstairs loo, she perfectly portrays the kind of trusting, socially responsible British woman of a certain age who has much more about her than she lets on.
The Children will have finished its run by the time of the awards season on either side of the Atlantic but be very surprised if there are not a host of nominations for both the Tony and Olivier prizes. You need to get in quick if you wish to see the show on Broadway; the run ends on February 4th.
The play is showing at the Samuel J Friedman Theater at 261 West 47th Street, which lies between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Tickets cost from $60 (rear mezzanine) to $149 direct from the theater. Stubhub has seats from $106 in the Mezzanine and $142 in the stalls (www. stubhub.com). Tickets are also available from Seatgeek (www.seatgeek.com) with Mezzanine tickets from $60). A small number of premier seats are on sale with Seatgeek at $149. Performances are 2.00pm matinees on Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday, with evening shows beginning at 7.00pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 8.00pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There are no performances on Mondays.
The design of the Samuel J Friedman Theater, with its back lying mezzanine, means that a view from the orchestra stalls is going to make audience members feel closer to the action, which is desirable in a production such as this. However, even if you can’t get hold of these seats for whatever reason, the strength of the performances makes any ticket worth having.
Who Are The Children?
The Children is a powerful play that tells its story in an understated way. Despite the serious themes, it never loses a sense of dark humor; the messages it offers make us question our own reaction to the precarious world in which we live. But it never preaches, lectures nor becomes overly portentous.
At the end we are left considering who ‘The Children’ might be, and if, in fact, they are us? But in reaching that question Lucy Kirkwood skilfully leads us on a twisting, turning journey; one that ends with a piece of wonderfully surreal, disturbing and quite unexpected theater.