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Review of ‘The Children’ by Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by Patrick Neylan

Hazel and Robin are retired nuclear scientists. They live just outside the exclusion zone of a nuclear reactor disaster – a nuclear reactor that they had some unspecified part in creating. Rationed electricity and a Geiger counter, on hand to check for signs of radiation, are the most noticeable outwards signs of its impact, but the disaster has also taken its toll on the psychology of each of the protagonists in other ways.

But first the set-up. An earthquake has led to a tsunami, and as the wave hit the dome of the reactor, it shut it down. Not to worry though, because there were backup generators. The only problem was that some idiot had put them in the basement, where the floodwaters quickly knocked them out too. If this all seems a bit far-fetched, think again, for this is pretty much exactly what happened in the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

“Ah, an anti-nuclear protest play!” I hear you say. Not at all. In fact, Lucy Kirkwood’s play is much more nuanced than that. All three of the principal characters accept the need for nuclear energy. They are scientists and see that the events that caused the disaster were a “one in 10 million years fault sequence”. In fact, this is a play about relationships – relationships between individuals with different attitudes and outlooks, and relationships between different generations.

As the play opens we meet Rose, who has arrived uninvited to see Hazel and Robin. The three worked together at the nuclear plant but have not met for 38 years. The reason for her arrival now is unknown and remains that way for two thirds of the play.

Much of the first half explores the contrast between Hazel and Rose. Hazel has four children; Rose has none. While Hazel has designed a life for herself and Robin of domestic order and efficiency, Rose takes a more reckless approach to life. Not for her Hazel’s yoghurt and yoga philosophy or her obsession with salad. “If you’re not going to grow,” Hazel says, “don’t live!”

The two characters were beautifully played. Pauline Armour’s portrayal of an organised woman whose strong and confident exterior hides a fragile interior, was both funny and touching. Never have the ingredients of a salad been cut up with such pent-up aggression, seemingly all in haste but taking almost the entire length of the first half to complete.

Nikki Packham’s Rose is, by contrast, more carefree, smoking as if to wave two fingers at the cancer-threatening radiation from the disaster. She is at ease with both her age and her sexuality, as one suspects she has always been, in contrast with the more precise and organised Hazel.

Both performances would have been powerful on their own, but the contrast between the two made this production hum: Rose’s relaxed joie de vivre both in contrast with and holding a mirror up to Hazel’s perfect correctness.

Early in the play it becomes apparent that Rose and Hazel have history. Rose knows her way around the kitchen rather too well, knowing where to find a glass when required, and Hazel’s unresolved jealousy and rage start to surface, never so far that it is acknowledged, but nonetheless there for all to see. When Robin appears and is able to find a moment to chat alone with Rose, it is clear that Hazel has good reason to mistrust her old colleague … and her husband.

Slowly we discover that Robin, the meek husband, occupied primarily with tending to the needs of the cows on the couple’s farm in the exclusion area, is perhaps not as signed up to Hazel’s project as we thought. John Turnbull’s portrayal trod a nice line between mild rebellion and outright betrayal. He handled beautifully the comic moment when he produced a pre-packed Peperami sausage and ate it conspiratorially with Rose – a seemingly minor act, laden with significance.

For two thirds of the play, we are left to believe that the disruption and chaos we can see coming from Rose’s arrival will be to Hazel and Robin’s relationship. But then she drops her bombshell. If their generation have been responsible for the disaster, why are young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, being expected to clear it up? Rose is co-ordinating an initiative to organise an army of retired scientists to go in and take over: “to let the younger ones go”. She is here to recruit Hazel and Robin and has no embarrassment at playing the guilt card.

Other differences between the two women take on an altogether greater significance. Rose, who has spent her life allowing other people to shoulder the mundane practicalities of life, while looking down her nose at them for doing so, now affects to have the greater social conscience. She fails to acknowledge the fact that her cancer might leave her with less to lose.

Meanwhile, Hazel’s earlier declaration, “You must leave a place cleaner than you found it,” now seems to haunt her. She and Robin have children. Does that make them more socially aware or less? While you might expect them to be more empathetic to the younger generation, they also have people who still rely on them – something to live for.

Rose calls the younger generation of nuclear engineers ‘children’, while Hazel says the same of her helplessly needy, 38-year old daughter. But as Robin points out, “The only way that child is going to grow is for her to wake up one morning to find we’re not there any more … your real duty to that child is to **** off at some point.”

In the end, it is Robin whose first minor Peperami rebellion now acts as a trailer to the discovery that he has in fact not been looking after the cows but burying the corpses. We realise that he is already preparing to die, and that discovery removes Hazel’s reason to hang on to life above all else. Rose has finally succeeded in driving a wedge between the couple.

Hazel is unmoved by Rose’s arguments about duty to the younger generation, and it’s only a chance remark that (possibly) changes her mind. When she calls for a taxi to take Rose and Robin to the power station, she asks after the dispatcher’s daughter: “Oh dear, that is worrying … cayenne pepper around the nostrils; helps it clot.” The tone is comforting, but she and the over-hearing Rose know – the child has leukaemia.

Not then, an anti-nuclear play, but one with many interconnected themes: specifically, it explores one generation’s responsibility to the next; but at a more abstract level, it is both about old-fashioned love and betrayal and about social conscience and selfishness. The confined, almost claustrophobic setting of the bar created an intense setting for the study of the reactions of the three characters – an almost scientific analysis of relationships and behaviour!

Alan Nelson