Sunday 31 March 2024

The Children

 Nottingham Playhouse

30th March, 2024, matinee

They don’t like having things taken away from them

A woman stands in the kitchen of a friend she’s not seen in 38 years with blood pouring out of her nose. This opening image, both comic and dark and full of intrigue, is typical in a play full of similarly striking moments. Set in a coastal cottage in the months after a triple-whammy of an environmental disaster, The Children sees two retired nuclear physicists getting to grips with the changing world around them. Having vacated their farm near the exclusion zone of the affected nuclear power plant, Hazel and Robin are enjoying a simpler existence: there are power shortages to contend with and they still daren’t use running water. But other than that, they have swallowed the immediate dangers and are seemingly content. So when their former colleague and friend Rose (Sally Dexter) turns up out of the blue, the couple are faced with a life-changing decision.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated play, which opened this week at Nottingham Playhouse, premiered at the Royal Court in 2016. Interestingly, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone also opened at that theatre in 2016, another play which likewise mixes the domestic and the catastrophic led by characters who are all over 60. But whereas Churchill’s play sharply contrasts banal conversations with the dystopian through sudden monologues which express the characters’ fears, Kirkwood’s play is more of a slow-burner. The setting tends towards the naturalistic. As realised by Amy Jane Cook and handsomely lit by Jamie Platt, we see a fairly sparse cottage kitchen in need of a lick of paint. You can tell it’s not well lived-in but an attempt has been made by its occupants to make an effort: wild flowers and melted candles sit in wine bottles, there’s a fruit bowl on the table, and throws are draped over a wicker chair. Hazel and Robin inhabit the setting seamlessly, ensuring there’s a veneer of normality to their lives. ‘We haven’t seen [the children] since the disaster, of course’ Hazel (Caroline Harker) nonchalantly tells Rose. Later, when Robin (Clive Mantle) enters carrying a child’s trike, he casually waves a Geiger counter over it. Kirkwood places the everyday side by side with existential terror, and Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production excellently blends these different elements. Kirkwood’s dialogue is energetic and filled with humour, and she’s structured the play so cleverly. Moments which seem inconsequential take on new meaning later, and every line has been carefully considered.

The play’s setting and the environmental disaster which makes it so captivating doesn’t override the play. All three characters have led interesting, full and rewarding lives and that gives cause for conflict to arise. Despite Rose not seeing Hazel for 38 years, it’s as if she’s been to this cottage before. On being invited to sit down, she pulls a footstall out from under the chair she couldn’t have known was there. She later fetches Hazel a glass of water and knows exactly where the glasses are kept. Something is clearly amiss and her relationship to Hazel and Robin is later revealed to be more than it first appears. The characters’ hidden depths are reflected in the performances – the production is finely acted by Dexter, Harker and Mantle. Ward has harnessed the cast’s familiarity with the text leaving you feel relaxed in the actors’ company such is their trust in each other. Dialogue just tumbles from their mouths, occasionally overlapping like it would in everyday conversation.

The effect is to emphasise the realism so when the play explores questions of epic proportion it’s all the more disturbing. As the play progresses, the reality of Rose’s visit comes to the fore. I won’t give too much away but she presents them with an opportunity which would involve a great deal of sacrifice. For Hazel, she adamantly refuses. Cautious by nature (she eats healthily, keeps fit and puts sunscreen on even during the winter), she feels she’s earnt the right to relax in her twilight years. But Robin’s more tempted. The flimsiness of his daily routine is apparent, the homemade wine and the tending to the cows is all filler. In Mantle’s performance, you can sense Robin’s restlessness, a yearning to contribute something more. An early story about him daring to drive his tractor closer to the cliff’s edge is telling. Death, he knows, is inevitable. But for Rose (an especially compelling performance by Dexter), we just rent our bodies for a short time. The question that the play poses about our responsibility to younger generations is one which lingers. And in the eight years since the play’s first production, it carries new meanings and even more weight.

The play’s closing image is as intriguing as the first: Hazel performs a yoga routine whilst Robin mops up water; one focusing on self-preservation, the other cleaning up the mess around them. It’s a refinement of the play’s central question and provides opportunity for the audience to reflect on the responsibility we carry in our time on this planet. Plaudits go to Nottingham Playhouse for reviving The Children, helping to cement its status as a contemporary classic.

The Children plays at Nottingham Playhouse until 6th April. For further information please visit

Clive Mantle, Caroline Harker and Sally Dexter in The Children. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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