'The Children' review or 'Don't let the sun go down on me...'

The Children – Lucy Kirkwood [Spoilers contained in this review…]
Royal Court Theatre, 30th November 2016

We’re in a charming and slightly worn down cottage by the coast. We’re somewhere in England, sometime around now. It’s late afternoon and Hazel (Deborah Findlay – outstanding) is preparing dinner for her husband Robin (Ron Cook). It’ll be a light dinner – just a cold salad - since Hazel and Robin are in their sixties and Hazel is damned if she’s going to just let death happen. You can choose not to run to towards death and Hazel chooses running on the spot, eating healthily, practising yoga.

Outside, the light is fading. The walls of the cottage glimmer and glow with the steady, off-stage descent of the sun. First the walls turn a gentle shade of pink. It is the start of something, gentle and unassuming. The pink deepens to a red, which darkens and thickens and seems to take a hold of things. Finally there is a cooling off – a white light followed by a flattening out and then a soft dip into darkness. It is like watching the very slowest of explosions. It is an explosion that has happened somewhere at a distance, somewhere we cannot see – but just look at the way this unseen explosion plays and fuses with the kitchen and the people inside it.  

Watching Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant new play ‘The Children’ (served tremendously by inspired directing from James Macdonald), you might miss the beautiful light show (Peter Mumford, genius) that dances about the walls. You might, instead, be distracted by Kirkwood’s pin-sharp dialogue, as witty as it is wise, as big and bold as it is domestic, authentic and familiar. You might have been distracted by three brilliant performances, with Deborah Findlay a frightened thumping heart at the centre of things. That would a shame. It’s a thing of beauty that light show; it is life continuing to do its thing, no matter what. It is the start and the end of things. But it is very hard to spot the big stuff, isn’t it, when you’re distracted by the main event, the very process of just getting on and living?

‘The Children’ is set in the aftermath of a power plant explosion. Hazel and Robin – both retired nuclear scientists - have moved into a cousin’s cottage in order to avoid contamination. Their old house, their farm and the cows are now locked off inside the danger zone. That world, those memories, feelings and things, are no longer an option for Hazel and Robin. There’s no going back – not unless they want to cause themselves some serious harm. Not unless they care so much about the past that they’re willing to destroy their bodies and fuck up their future.

Only there’s always a way to back, isn’t there? When old friend and colleague Rose (Francesca Annis) arrives – after a hefty 37 years away – the past comes rumbling back into Hazel and Robin’s lives. It takes a little while to catch up with them. At first, Hazel and Rose’s shared history merely lingers, strange and threatening, underneath the distracting patter of everyday chat. Hazel talks about Rose being an ‘old, old friend’ and there’s a funny sort of spitefulness to the phrase. As the two feel each other out, circling one another with empty phrases, the dialogue begins to thicken. The light ripples and pulses and that – too – seems to speak of the life these two once shared, when they worked together at the power plant.  And when Rose helps herself to a glass of water – walks straight to Hazel’s cupboard and plucks out a glass – well, that glass of water becomes a weapon.

Hazel’s husband Robin (Ron Cook) arrives home and the present is again – more strongly this time - contaminated by the past. Rose’s words grow heavier and her flat and calm demeanor begins to feel like a soot that smothers everything. She has a weird neutrality about her – a sort of refusal to become animated. Perhaps that’s because Rose has got something to hide. Perhaps it is because she feels defensive, or because she never had children. For whatever reason, Rose doesn’t seem to be completely inside this scene, inside her life. She hover somewhere just outside of things. And when Rose goes to smoke, she stands beside the half-open kitchen door, half in and half outside of this early evening gathering.

The light outside cools and the dialogue cools with it, becoming colder, thinner, harder. The words start to feel flinty – weapons with which these characters can harm each other. And then, finally, the dam breaks. The past comes flooding into this kitchen (quite literally at one point, when the toilet bursts and water spills through Miriam Buether’s exquisitely restrained set) and everything changes. It tells you something about the depth of this play that a burst toilet pipe can say so much, without that poignancy feeling in any way pretentious or hard-working. That burst toilet is the end of our planet. It is icebergs melting and islands drowning. It is the tipping point. It is a shitstorm (ha) raining down on all of us. It is ugly past indiscretions finally catching up on us. It is Rose and Robin’s affair, hidden for so long, finally sweeping through Hazel’s kitchen and destroying her perfectly preserved but perfectly dishonest present.

The dam has opened. Rose finally reveals the reason she is here. She has a request. Rose wants Robin and Hazel to come and help clean up the mess at the power plant. It is dangerous work – but it is their mess to sort out. The real master-piece of Kirkwood’s play is that this is not necessarily an altruistic act from Rose. Is this the behaviour of a good person, or of someone with nothing to lose? What is more important, anyway? To protect the people and the small world around us, or to make bigger sacrifices in order to save more people and, well, more planet? What are we really living for: these scenes in our kitchen or that bigger light show gently playing out beyond our window?

Rose has a cigarette and – again – that tension between the big and small battles, the local and wider issues, is encapsulated in the simple acting of puffing on a cigarette. Smoking gives Rose pleasure, so why shouldn’t she do it? It will probably kill her in the end, but the end is a very, very hard concept for the human head to wrap around.

Rose finishes her cigarette and Hazel, livid and frightened and a little bit excited too (even if she can’t admit it yet), sprays the smoke-filled air that Rose has created. Hazel picks the present. Hazel picks what is in front of her. She chooses looking after her children, no matter how disappointing or difficult they might be. She chooses cleaning up the mess that she can actually see.

As these three grapple with this huge decision that they face, they put on the radio and play an old song. It is a song that the three once danced to together – they even made up a routine. At first Rose and Robin struggle to remember the steps, but then Hazel joins in and guides them through. It isn’t long before they’re all in synch, wiggling and shimmying to the music. All three suddenly look really young and really happy again. But it’s just a fleeting moment. The dancing soon breaks down and the music stops. It felt good to dance though, didn’t it? It felt really good – right up until the music stopped and everything fell silent.