Fall In Or Fallout
For some, Lucy Kirkwood’s 2016 play “The Children” speaks directly to climate change. For others it’s far more successful as a play protesting nuclear power. Inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and revolving around three retired nuclear scientists in the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, Kirkwood certainly has a nuclear bone to pick. Yet Kirkwood isn’t really concerned with nuclear meltdowns or climate change in “The Children,” even if she is. What Kirkwood’s more concerned with is our personal and collective refusal to make the changes needed to save our world and ourselves. A refusal to be responsible and accountable for all that has happened, and all that needs to happen, if our lives, loves, and planet are to survive. If Kirkwood’s low octane eco-thriller underplays its panic, this proves a wise decision. Instead “The Children” delivers its message through an abundance of laughter and insight, toying with understated subversions that make it irresistibly engaging. All helped by three terrific performances and some first class direction.
Kirkwood’s cautionary comedy begins innocuously and conventionally. Into a tight knit world dominated by the kitchen and the Geiger counter, a wounded Rose, suffering a nose bleed, chats with an old friend and colleague sat across a kitchen table. Hazel, who Rose is visiting for the first time in thirty-eight years, busies herself with domestic chores, seeming somewhat nonplussed as to why her former colleague has decided to call. Conversation soon settles into a long steady flow that wouldn’t look out of place in a TV sit com, replete with conveniently timed entrances and exits. A sort of Golden Girls:The Nuclear Years, whose sly digs and underhanded bitchiness conceal a welter of deeper meanings. The arrival of Hazel’s husband, fellow scientist, Robin, an aging lothario well past his sell by date, only complicates matters. Soon all three start sharing the fallout that is their lives. Sex, sickness, old flames and forget me nots, none prove more in need of resolution than the disaster they’re currently all living on the edge of. But what price are you prepared to pay for life, and what price for dying?
If “The Children” takes a slow burning ramble towards its biggish reveal, it winds its way with equal ease towards its unsteady denouement. Unsurprising given that much of “The Children” is spent talking the past. With stakes being low for long periods, even if there’s a lot at stake in principle, even ultimate stakes can come to feel like theoretical or abstract ideals. Something director Oonagh Murphy wisely negotiates by foregrounding the personal over the political in a tale where the most interesting things have happened already. Nothing onstage can compete with cancer, big breasted nymphets, or nuclear destruction, no matter how thought provoking or funny. In the end Kirkwood's past-focused script makes minimal dramatic asks till near the end, even as its wonderfully observed dialogue delightfully disarms.
Throughout "The Children" Murphy smartly exposes textured layers by way of a lack of intrusiveness across the board, as well as by keeping a few well timed aces up her sleeve. Sarah Bacon’s set design being a case in point, being far subtler and smarter than it might at first appear. If Bacon’s wonderfully rendered, hyper-realist kitchen is grounded in the everyday, or the kitchen sink drama, the final image flings everything into the disturbingly abstract. An abstraction superbly evoked by Sinéad McKenna’s often understated lighting, conveying both the concrete world of candles and electricity and that of a darker place. If Kevin Gleeson’s composition never overtly asserts itself, it enriches key moments wonderfully for not having done so.
Murphy also ensures Kirkwood’s often childlike characters are given plenty of room to play. An approach made doubly wise given Murphy’s exceptional casting. Ger Ryan as the worldweary scientist Rose, often the only real adult in the room, is consistently mesmerising, her adopted American accent perfectly played. Sean McGinley’s lecherous yet lovable Robin shows flashes of brilliance in an incredibly strong performance. As does an adorable Marie Mullen as the often ditzy, yoga loving Hazel, proving utterly irresistible throughout.
With Kirkwood’s play operating on many levels, and being informed by many themes, it risks feeling a little unfocused in places. Yet at its comic core it asks some serious questions. Why some people smoke when they know it will give them cancer might make no sense, but it's not nonsense. Plato wondered if man, or woman, is a rational being why does he, or she, do irrational things? In “The Children” Kirkwood asks essentially the same question. If she can’t provide an adequate answer either, what she offers with clear headed certainty is the realisation that we’re at the point where such questions are rapidly becoming a luxury. We can’t keep talking about why we’re bleeding to death when we need to treat our wounds. Smart, understated, beautifully performed and exquisitely directed, "The Children" turns potential apocalypse into comic delight, even as we loom dangerously close to a silhouetted nuclear sunset.
“The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood, runs at The Gate Theatre until March 23.
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre.