Review by Lisa Lanzi
In Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children a fraught Hazel exclaims: “I don’t know how to want less”. This focuses us on generational attitudes to adjusting for the future in a world ravaged by natural and manmade disasters alongside humanity’s seemingly endless desire for ‘more’. It is also reminiscent of a childlike plea a disgruntled three year old might utter and leaves us to ponder who might be the children referred to in the title. Many allusions to ‘children’ occur within the text: in regard to actual but unseen offspring, younger professional workers at the adjacent nuclear power plant who have longer lives ahead of them than our three protagonists, the children of an imagined, hopefully better, future, and indeed the three sometimes childish adults we observe on stage who have the capacity to do better.
Nominated for a Tony Award in 2018, and staged by Sydney Theatre Company the same year, The Children is an important, sharply observant contemporary theatre work and pays homage to the likes of Albee or Pinter (albeit a tad less menacing) as well as the trope of the ‘drawing room play’ where one of the protagonists is the visitor/interloper. The background of the play echoes the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in a nuclear power station meltdown. Here the setting is the east coast of England and the living area of a rundown, borrowed cottage (with unreliable plumbing) just outside the radioactive exclusion zone where two former nuclear physicist/engineers reside post-disaster.
Three actors, Tina Bursill, Genevieve Mooy, and Terence Crawford, form a co-dependent triangle when Rose (Bursill) arrives at Hazel’s and Robin’s remote cottage after four decades of absence. The narrative is driven by their complex interactions, both past and present, and by the nature of their differing personalities. Beneath the character driven dialogue, broader, conflicting themes co-exist: past, present and future connections; the sometimes thin line between enmity and attraction; the questions of desire versus need; the state of denial compared to an acceptance of responsibility; the concept of ‘home’ and belonging; and generational obligation. Additionally, we witness how people exert control over themselves and others right beside more visceral reactions of fear and powerlessness. Kirkwood admits she didn’t wish to point blame at one generation leaving ecological disarray for the next but it is difficult not to recognise problems of profligacy presenting dire ramifications for the future.
As the play unfolds there are moments of comedy and menace plus teasing hints about unexplained but suspected revelations that are gradually worked into the dialogue. While the undertow of threat, submerged passion and confrontation within the arc of the characterization is obvious, I craved a little more ‘danger’ within the interactions. The characters are well formed and the banter flows between states of congeniality, rage, sarcasm, and the comedic. The compelling Tina Bursill graces Rose with poise, confidence, and an air of superiority as a veneer to cover vulnerability that she barely recognizes in herself. Bursill often powerfully remains still on stage, the wry observer in the trio, adding to the mystery of Rose’s purpose and intent. Hazel (Genevieve Mooy) presents as a slightly ditzy, obsessive, domesticated woman in opposition to her biting, intelligent, perceptive inner which surfaces now and then. Mooy is a wonderful actor in total command of her space but there tended to be too little variation in the sometimes shrill delivery, minimising the impact of the character. The solo male in the cast is played by Terence Crawford with confidence. Robin is a man of contrasts: dutiful but decadent, intelligent but needy, a flawed man whose power is on the wane with an outward, world-weary strength hiding self-doubt and self-loathing.
Acclaimed director Corey McMahon has set up many sparkling character interactions but I sensed here and there, the cast was yet to settle into total control of the material. Also, just a very few indulgent pauses, which may have been actor- rather than director-led, presented lost dramatic opportunities or caused annoying halts to the flow. The use of a meticulously prepared but largely uneaten salad also stood out as a lost opportunity around ideas of waste, consumption, or even the possibility of physical amplifying the verbal conflict unleashed at the time. McMahon has obviously relished the experience of directing this play and provides this rich text with a magnificent chance to shine on the main stage through his insightful analysis of a complex piece of writing, rife with imagery and some laugh-out-loud moments. A scene involving some beloved choreography to a James Brown song from the characters’ more light-hearted past lights up the stage; imagery (involving blood) that bookends the play is dramatic and prophetic. An artful, otherworldly yoga sequence (accompanied by extraordinary sound score and music composition courtesy of Andrew Howard and Belinda Gehlert) wraps the work, elevating the scene to a far more abstracted sphere than exists within the rest of the play. Nic Mollison has provided thoughtful and appropriate lighting design (much is made of the situational restricted use of electricity and need for candles) while Victoria Lamb is responsible for set and costuming.
Lamb’s design has the power to indicate a crumbling home, but also a refuge, an escape, a fortress - or a kind of Limbo where the threesome gather to conceivably reconcile, forgive, move on, or remain. While I appreciate and admire the intricate reality-based set adorned with ‘sawn-off’, not-quite-finished boundaries, it is quite the character in and of itself and sometimes absorbed too much of the action; I do admit this is entirely my bias toward more impressionistic staging.
The Children will leave audiences meditating on the many themes therein and presents so many important points our contemporary selves need to face. The ending is enigmatic, and rightly so. However there is a small sense of hope here, around our capacity for growth as we lean into learning, and with adept hindsight, analysis of past mistakes to enable better future decisions.