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The Children review at the Royal Court, London – ‘provocative and accusatory’

Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay and Francesca Annis in The Children. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lucy Kirkwood is really good at pushing buttons. Really good. She follows NSFW and Chimerica, both provocative in their way, with The Children, an intriguing if problematic piece set in the aftermath of a nuclear incident.

Hazel and Rose haven’t seen each other in 38 years. Both are scientists who helped to build the nuclear plant that has contaminated the country. In the years since Hazel has had four children with her husband, Robin, while Rose has led a more itinerant life, spending time in America. Now Rose is sitting their kitchen with a proposition for them.

Kirkwood’s characters inhabit a world that is both familiar and fundamentally changed. The land is irradiated, all the cattle are dead and they only have electricity for a short time each day; Robin carries a Geiger counter in his pocket. The world is a mess and someone needs to clean it up.

The play poses a lot of questions about inheritance, societal responsibility, the wreckage that one generation has left for the next and the necessity of stepping aside so that one’s children can live.

At times the play feels heavy-handed in its use of metaphor – there’s literal shit on the floor that needs mopping up – but Kirkwood is a smarter writer than that and The Children is a witty, slippery play of debate as well as an engaging character study, particularly in its portrait of the sexual lives of the 60-something characters: Robin, it transpires, has a romantic past with both women and desire still exists on all sides.

Francesca Annis, with that extraordinarily sculptural face of hers, is magnificently poised as Rose and Deborah Findlay performs a brilliant balancing act as the brisk, efficient, uptight Hazel, irritating yet not unsympathetic. Her passive aggressive use of the phrase "number two" is a joy. Ron Cook’s gruff, amiable performance as Robin provides us with glimpses of the man that both women loved and coveted.

James Macdonald’s production is one of gentle tension coupled with occasional flashes of silliness and humour, especially once the home-made parsnip wine has started to flow.

Miriam Buether’s design, with its sloping floor, is full of little details that inform our understanding of how these characters live: the hand-cranked radio, the tea urn, the arm chair oozes stuffing.

The dystopian premise is used as a platform for arguments about the futility of fighting the ageing process, the necessity of erosion and decay, the stuff with which we surround ourselves, what it means to grow up and grow old, and, above all, the obligations of the baby boomer generation. It’s a dark and accusatory play in many ways, beneath its polite surface. I found its suggestion that sacrifice is the only solution a troubling one, but that’s a mark of good writing: to make you question yourself, to get your blood up. A couple of the dramatic beats feel forced and there are sizeable cracks in its narrative logic but Kirkwood’s play is never less than compelling.

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Verdict
Witty, provocative and accusatory play that raises vital questions about social responsibility
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