Friday, December 29, 2017

The Children - Posing Questions of Responsibility

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

"I don't know how to want less", exclaims Hazel (Deborah Findlay) in Lucy Kirkwood's dystopian drama The Children. This London transfer currently having its North American premiere at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Hazel and Robin (Ron Cook) retired nuclear engineers and a long time married couple, live on an isolated section of the English coast, approximately ten miles from what has become known as the "exclusion zone". An area so heavily irradiated in the wake of a nuclear meltdown, it has been deemed unsafe for human entry. Since the disaster, the couple has been forced to adapt to a world where items once taken for granted - such as constant electricity and safe, running water - are now things of the past.

Despite the constant reminders of what has occurred - including the farm they once owned now being in the exclusion zone - the two have managed to survive rather well. Though Robin is more haunted by the past than his wife, he even going down to their farm every day to check on the cows they had to leave behind.

Things change with the unexpected arrival of Rose (Francesca Annis). A former colleague whom they haven't seen in nearly four decades. At least Hazel hasn't. Robin, as it turns out, once had a romantic relationship with Rose. One which may have continued long after Hazel thought it finished.

Rose however, has a different reason for her visit. Knowing the authorities are working on shutting down the still-leaking power plant, she wants Robin and Hazel to be part of the team she is taking back there. Engineers and specialists all over the age of 65. People whom, in her view, have already lived most of their lives, thus more expendable than the much younger technicians who were previously sent to do the job. Especially since it can take up to 20 years for the effects of radiation to be felt.

The Children poses numerous questions regarding the quality of life. Most specifically, whose is most important? Those with more than 50 years still ahead, or persons with probably half that? Kirkwood also stacks the deck in Rose's favor by adding elements of personal responsibility and guilt. Rose blurting out at one point that Hazel and Robin don't have the right to electricity. Not when half the developing world doesn't have access to it.

Part and parcel with this is the idea that one cannot rest on their past accomplishments - such as assisting in the removal of an irradiated layer of topsoil - when there is the still much more to be done. Hazel may believe that, after a lifetime of doing good, she and Robin have earned the right to walk away and start over. But as Kirkwood makes clear, no one has that right.

Unfortunately, while offering a lot to think about, the play doesn't even start to become interesting until the one hour mark. The time prior basically a lengthy and roundabout conversation between Rose and Hazel, which gives no idea what is to come. Thus, by the time the purpose of Rose's visit is revealed, one has ceased to care about those on stage.

It would have also been nice to know exactly when the accident happened. Robin's habit of going back into the irradiated area to check on the cows suggests it was fairly recent. Yet there are other references indicating a longer amount of time has passed. Being more specific would have made the various references in the play come together more strongly.

Findlay is the standout of the cast as Hazel. A woman who does just enough to avoid feeling guilty about her life, and where denial is a key part of her reality. As a resigned realist, Cook's character nicely balances Findlay's in their scenes together. Robin helping to maintain the illusions Hazel has erected, while not really caring about what happens to himself.

While meant to be the catalyst in the show, Rose comes off as more annoying than anything else. The character continually picking at every statement made, as if trying to reawaken old memories and feelings in the other two. Yet there is a difference between knowing you are in the right and acting much too pretentious about it. A distinction the playwright, director James Macdonald and Annis all seem to have forgotten.

Kirkwood has come up with an interesting story, but it takes too long to get to the payoff; and even when it does, there are certain elements that remain unclear.

The Children
by Lucy Kirkwood

Featuring: Francesca Anna (Rose), Ron Cook (Robin), Deborah Findlay (Hazel).

Scenic and Costume Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting and Production Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Max Pappenheim
Production Stage Manager: Martha Donaldson
Original Casting: Amy Ball
Additional Casting: Nancy Piccione
Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
General Manager: Florie Seery
Directed by James Macdonald

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club and The Royal Court Theatre

The Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, No Intermission

Closes: February 4, 2018

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