Theatre review - The Children, Theatre by the Lake
PUBLISHED: 14:38 13 June 2019
The latest studio production at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) asks us to consider what we would do if a Chernobyl or Fukushima happened to us. With many of us in Cumbria living in sight of Sellafield, this is a play which is uncomfortably close to home.
Playwright Lucy Kirkwood has created an unusual piece - a mix of black comedy, social drama and kitchen table chat - with themes which are clearly visible yet somehow intriguingly intangible.
The story is set entirely in the kitchen of Robin and Hazel, two retired nuclear scientists living near the fallout zone of the plant where they used to work. They are visited by a former 'friend' and colleague, Rose, who brings disruption to their oddly semi-idyllic life. In the background is 'the disaster' resulting in their restrictive and cautious lifestyle, and 'the children'. Both are discussed and essential to the plot, yet both are just as ethereal as all the themes which seem to set off in a direction and then take strange turns.
Initially very funny (though never slapstick), the play - which runs without an interval - becomes increasingly darker and more ethically complex as time progresses. None of these characters are telling the others - or the audience - the whole story. While nothing is hard to follow, you're left pondering exactly what has just gone on.
The three actors would be easy to miss with the strength of the other productions running at TBTL and this production gives them all the chance to show what they can do. Patrick Driver (Robin) plays a camp and cowardly character in 'The Ladykillers' which is a far cry from the strongly heterosexual, loyal but aloof man he portrays here. Rachel Laurence (Rose) plays the old and barmy landlady in 'The Ladykillers' but looks about 20 years younger and completely in control of her feelings and destiny as Rose. Maggie O'Brien (Hazel) is excellent in 'My Mother Said' but though she plays the genesis of the three other women, her character doesn't have much room to develop there. In 'The Children' O'Brien makes her character shine; you can't take your eyes off her. Separately, the actors are superbly real and believable. Together, they strengthen each other and make the play fast paced and utterly gripping.
Yet we easily forget we're watching a production. It feels like we're eavesdropping on ordinary kitchen conversation. You almost feel like coughing and excusing yourself from the room, as the conversations take uncomfortable turns and you realise you shouldn't be there. Just like such real conversations, the themes don't progress in textbook ways; nor do they conclude cleanly. There's nothing easy about working out this story even though the humour keeps the action far away from insipid melodrama.
Though Sellafield is decommissioned, new power plants in Cumbria are under discussion and I was alarmed to discover that in my village, in sight of Sellafield, many homes have potassium iodide in their cupboards 'just in case'. Although Lucy Kirkwood grew up near Sizewell in Suffolk and probably had that power station in mind when she wrote 'The Children', Cumbrian audiences will easily imagine this play considerably nearer to home. Even though we smile and laugh throughout the story, deep questions are asked of us here and the potential tragedies on multiple levels are sobering thoughts. TBTL have yet again given us a studio production with which we simply can't remain as neutral observers. But where you stand is harder to say.
'The Children' is showing at Theatre by the Lake's studio theatre until 1 November. To find out more call the Box Office on 017687 74411 or visit www.theatrebythelake.com