Playwright Lucy Kirkwood has a track record in taking stuff seriously. Her best-known work is Chimerica, a play about political and cultural relations between China and America with a photojournalist investigating a picture from Tiananmen Square. Her new play at the Royal Court Theatre, The Children, is about nuclear scientists facing the consequences of their work following a disaster at a nuclear reactor.
The play is set in the near future and focuses on a sixtysomething couple in a remote cottage not far from the site of the collapsed power station. Into this modestly post-apocalyptic scenario walks an old friend — a former colleague and fellow nuclear scientist who wants the couple to join her in righting the wrong of the disaster and clearing up the mess for future generations.
It’s a vigorously didactic piece of work and a typical Royal Court play that’s not as subtle as it would like to think. It fits comfortably into the Royal Court tradition of social comment, going back through Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls, all the way to John Osbourne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger. It’s well made, with strong characters and fizzy dialogue driven by old-fashioned moral purpose. The three characters are all good, trustworthy liberals well grounded in Guardian opinion columns. ‘You can’t have everything you want just because you want it’, says one. It’s the sort of warm, cleansing enema that might be administered by Polly Toynbee or George Monbiot.
The characters are all creatures of the flesh. Most prominent is Hazel, played by Deborah Findlay. A breezy, 67-year-old mother of four, she is a yoga enthusiast without boundaries and thoroughly open to the world. But she is only just about managing to hold it together with her partner Robin, played with nasal sleaziness by Ron Cook. A slightly weather-beaten louche who brews parsnip wine, he’s also charged with maintaining Hazel’s self-esteem. In particular not letting her believe that he’s still having an affair with their old friend, the new arrival, Rose. Played by a dry, taciturn Francesca Annis, Rose is the one who’s come to make them face their responsibility to posterity.
There are some good lines. An acquaintance is described as having a face like a haunted house. ‘My arteries look like roof insulation’, complains Rose, who is (not very surprising spoiler alert) suffering from cancer. Rose also refers to her body as ‘rented meat’. And Kirkwood’s willingness to strike an indelicate tone is captured by a nicely scatological touch when a turd resurfaces in the downstairs loo. Pleasingly childish, this episode justifies its place as a humorous echo of the play’s message: we need to deal with our shit.