The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Winter 2016-2017
The strongest thing about Lucy Kirkwood's new drama is that it raises fresh and important issues in both thought-provoking and dramatically involving ways.
The weakest thing is the over-complicated backstory and exposition she needs in order to get her improbable characters with improbable histories and improbable relationships to the same improbable place under improbable conditions in order to face them with those very real and important issues.
Sometime in the near future a Fukushima-type disaster has taken place, an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by a meltdown at a nuclear power station.
An elderly couple living just outside the contaminated zone are visited by an old friend.
Now, just for brevity I'm going to leave out a lot of the improbable complications in their interconnected pasts, to get to the point where the visitor suggests that they, along with others of their generation she's recruiting, volunteer to do the shut-down and clean-up work at the damaged plant.
Again I'll simplify her multi-layered argument to its core – that they've lived their lives and their dying of radiation poisoning will be less of a tragedy than it will be for the younger people currently on the job.
Now add back in the things I've left out, both about these characters as individuals and about the ramifications of the visitor's proposal, and you get that rarest of dramatic accomplishments – an intellectual puzzle brought fully emotionally alive.
But to get to the meat of the play the playwright has to work very hard piling improbability upon improbability, the audience has to work very hard to absorb and believe everything they're told, and the actors and director have to work very hard to bring these characters alive even as the audience can't help counting up the improbabilities.
Director James Macdonald is generally successful, though his hand sometimes wavers as one-too-many revelation or coincidence hits us. And until we finally believe fully in the characters some of the characterising sequences or revelations may play for the moment as pointless digressions.
But a trio of always-reliable, never-disappointing actors – Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay – bring all their talent, charm and warmth to the three characters, making them real and making what concerns them concern us.
The Children has a lot to say about (among other things) loyalty, love, mortality, parents' obligations to children, and one generation's responsibility to another, all presented in moving and human terms.
If only the playwright had found some less credulity-straining ways of getting there.
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