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Mosquitoes starring Olivia Colman – review at the National Theatre, London – ‘idea-stuffed’

Olivia Williams and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Olivia Williams and Olivia Colman in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lucy Kirkwood likes to cram a lot of ideas into her plays.

Mosquitoes is the story of sisters Alice and Jenny. One is a physicist searching for the Higgs-Boson particle at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. The other has spent much of the last decade trying to conceive a child while also caring for their mother, an accomplished physicist herself who never got the recognition she deserved.

Their relationship becomes the lens through which Kirkwood explores a whole slew of ideas: the way in which the mainstream media plays on the public’s fears and the damage this can cause, the role of women in the sciences, the complexity of sibling relationships when one is more successful than the other, plus some stuff about the toxicity of Mumsnet. Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, the nature of the universe.

There’s also a sizeable subplot about Alice’s son Luke, an intelligent young man who doesn’t fit in at school. This almost feels like a separate play.

Rufus Norris’ production takes the approach that, as this is a play about science stuff, it requires the deployment of all his toys. The play is staged in-the-round in the Dorfman on Katrina Lindsay’s set, an iceberg-blue disc with a second disc suspended above it which occasionally descends to become a screen on which video imagery can be projected. Norris makes a mini-planetarium out of the stage in a way that is at times both dazzling and a bit bludgeoning; the over-emphatic sound design robs the delicate final seconds of their final emotional clout.

Fortunately, Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams are bulletproof performers. It’s a joy to watch them work together, evoking the strengths and fragilities of these two women, the tenderness and rivalry and frustration of their relationship. Joseph Quinn more than holds his own as Luke, a smart kid but a kid all the same, while Amanda Boxer gives a performance of subtlety as their mother, Karen, a woman of pride and formidable intellect facing up to her physical and mental decline.

Kirkwood is a writer of reach, intelligence and ambition. There’s a hunger to her work, an urge to fill her plays to brim. She knows how to spring-load a joke and can write lines of total emotional devastation, but she’s also prone to on-the-nose dialogue and her plotting contains moments of implausibility. Certainly Jenny, the ‘stupid’ sister and ‘crazy’ aunt, doesn’t seem as vulnerable and susceptible as the plot needs her to be, despite Colman’s rich, funny and poignant performance.

It’s a joy though to see a play devote this much space and time to examining what it is to be a sister, a mother and a daughter, while also contemplating the workings of the universe and our place within it.

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Idea-stuffed, intelligent play viewing life, the universe and everything through the relationship of two sisters