REVIEW: Won’t somebody please think of “The Children”?
“[W]e built it, didn’t we? Or helped to, we’re responsible...”
Rose, a retired physicist in Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children”, is talking about a nuclear power station in meltdown mode following an earthquake and attendant tsunami-like wave. But, of course, she’s also talking about something much larger: the world that is crumbling around us.
Doom is in this season. It’s in the news every day, from North Korean threats to Syrian refugees and starving polar bears. And it’s on the stage, too.
“The Children” is a relevant and trenchant play that uses the dystopian reality of nuclear meltdown as an impetus for exploring big questions on an intimate scale. This dark tragicomedy, an acclaimed import from The Royal Court Theatre in London now enjoying a limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, is slyly allegorical and humorous in tackling the intergenerational guilt, responsibility, and sacrifice gripping the more socially conscious and communitarian baby boomers among us.
The world they built, or helped to, is doomed by climate change, war, over-population, and resource scarcity. A generation that was given everything now has little to show for it. As Helen Lovejoy would implore us to do, won’t somebody please think of the children?
Unmistakably inspired by Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, “The Children” takes place in a remote cottage on the British coast sometime after “the disaster”, an earthquake and flood that causes a meltdown at the ill-designed local nuclear power station. The emergency generators are in the basement—sound familiar?—and contaminated water is about to spill into the sea unless the workers, mostly under 35 and facing severe radiation poisoning, can stop it.
An excellent set by Miriam Buether unsettlingly pitches the small cottage at an angle, enough to make any spherical object roll, but not so much as to prevent adjustment to a new normal by its resilient residents. Like so many global problems, the slant is noticeable but avoidable precisely because of its ubiquity. As the earth literally crumbles underneath, this off-kilter cottage—a temporary residence and glaring metaphor—remains stubbornly intact, at least until some future point at which it will be too late to save. Again, sound familiar?
Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), a married couple—themselves retired physicists who worked at the power station—abandon their home and farm to take refuge in Robin’s cousin’s cottage, miles outside the “exclusion zone” where radiation levels are too high for safe habitation.
When Rose (Francesca Annis), their former colleague, mysteriously shows up at the cottage after a 38-year absence (Hazel thought she was dead), their philosophies of aging clash as long-stewing secrets and hidden motivations are revealed, scores are settled, and fatal decisions made (no spoilers here).
Ms. Kirkwood insightfully devises rich and fascinating characters whose diverging worldviews reflect the paradoxes that come with personal responsibility, maturity, and eventual death. It is fascinating to watch the machinations of these characters unfold over the 110 minutes of the play, especially as embodied by Ms. Annis, Ms. Findlay, and Mr. Cook, who reprise their acclaimed, pitch-perfect performances from the West End.
Hazel, who has applied sunscreen year-round since her 20s, lives a regimented and orderly life devoted to good eating and plentiful exercise, keeping house, and tending to her children and grandchildren. Rose, who lives on a whim, never married, has no kids, survived cancer, finds salad “depressing”, and gets winded looking at sneakers. Hazel wants to live forever. Rose welcomes the inevitable. Robin, a jocular coat covering his existential crisis, plays Hazel’s game, but harbors Rose’s outlook. Death is necessary for others—things and people—to live, he believes, and like the ground underneath his cottage, he feels “eroded”.
The imagery of the play, both in the physical setting and the playwright’s words, is stark and memorable. The final sequences, featuring a group line dance to James Brown’s “Ain’t It Funky Now”, a bloody coughing fit, an overflowing toilet, sun salutations, and allusions to the ringing of mythical underwater church bells, bring the play’s various thematic components into a harmonic explosion of planar transportation, visually projecting the lives and fates of Rose, Hazel, and Robin—and me, and you—in a stunning, if frenetic and disquieting collage eerily evoking the waves that will likely consume all coastal land in the not-so-distant future.
In the first line of the play, Rose asks: “how are the children?” That is, or at least ought to be, the question of our time, if only we can first identify who “the children” are.
Bottom Line: “The Children”, a new, dark tragicomedy by Lucy Kirkwood, offers an allegorical and humorous take on our doomed planet through the lens of the intergenerational guilt and responsibility of nuclear physicists in the wake of a disaster. An acclaimed transfer from London, the performances are pitch-perfect and the play both relevant and trenchant.
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 110 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: December 12, 2017
Final Performance: February 4, 2018