The Children theatre review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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Australia is the second biggest uranium exporter on the planet, and it was Australian uranium that fuelled the Fukushima disaster, so one gets an awful feeling of responsibility during Lucy Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic, barely-fantasy The Children, now playing in a Melbourne Theatre Company production.

Regardless of the local relevance the Australian premiere of this British play – a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company – is excellent. Director Sarah Goodes deftly and gradually uncovers the drama, all the while maintaining the broad and pointed humour. The cast are stellar, slipping from the observational and reflective comedy to the enormous horror that is the play’s backdrop.

Married for 40 years, Hazel (Pamela Rabe) and Robin (William Zappa) were living at a farm, but have now borrowed a small and isolated cottage on the edge of the radiation exclusion zone, around the nuclear power plant that they both worked at and helped design. The nuclear power plant that’s now in ruins.

The Children is a tremendously funny work, but there is no denying the seriousness of the themes it explores.

An unexpected visit from an old workmate/friend/lover-to-Robin, Rose (Sarah Peirse), provides the spark that sets off the action. The play opens as Hazel has just accidentally given Rose a bloodnose, having mistaken her for an intruder. Rose’s not clear about why she’s here, and it seems like there’s no answer that will satisfy a suspicious Hazel. Enter roguish and charming Robin and a suspicious flirtation between he and Rose; and cue a back story about Hazel and Robin’s one ‘difficult’ child.

The Children is a tremendously funny work, but there is no denying the seriousness of the themes it manages to explore. One of the major assets of the text is its focus on the domestic realities of baby-boomer guilt (who knew they felt guilty, that’s a start isn’t it!?) as the nuclear disaster provides an oppressive background. The power station is a brilliant as metaphor, whilst still standing for itself.

It’s worth comparing the similarities between The Children and Sam Shepard’s dry, absurd farce The God of Hell, for similar themes and a somewhat similar set-up (an aging married couple living on a farm’s old friend turns up with a secret about government and literal power). Yet where Shepard’s work opts for the fantastic – some kind of acquired super powers, Kirkwood provides us with only a small cultural alteration by replacing Japan (Fukushima) with an unnamed location in the United Kingdom that is almost certainly Dunwich, Suffolk. In a word The Children is post-Pinteresque. The threat and menace has been acted on, and this is what happens next.

This is perhaps best epitomised by a long description of the tsunami that lead to the nuclear disaster, by the nose bleed, by a small series of accidents near the end of the play and on a small scale, by the building tension as night falls on the major dramatic question which can’t be revealed without spoilers.

Still, there’s an hysterical scene near the end, that begins with the trio retracing dance moves they’d invented at a party 41 years earlier. The mostly aging MTC audience laughed in appreciation and recognition while I cringed into my chair. I can’t tell you what happens after that without ruining the play, suffice to say we were both right to feel the way we did. The Children is at times both a very entertaining and, thankfully, also a very difficult work.

The play is a last call to the generation who are still in control, and still destroying the planet, to act while they can.

Rabe’s Hazel is the rock around which the play revolves. She travels from an electric comic invention to heroine effortlessly thanks to her masterful performance.

Zappa has a less obvious journey to travel, but his transition from low-key humour to his conclusion is no less powerful. Peirse has the most mystery to work with, and we are frequently unsettled by her character, torn between affection and disgust, in a tremendous performance.

Goodes has made a name as a go-to for successful, main-stage comedies and she’s in her element in this contained, traditional work. She wrings every last bit of tension between the controlled Hazel and the chaotic, antagonising Rose; and finds a lovely balance between warmth and scoundrel for Robin.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s brutal framing of a very real looking cottage and inhabitants is a perfect realisation of the play’s themes and atmosphere. Paul Jackson’s lighting design is subtle and mirrors the creeping journey of the play. Steve Francis sound is haunting, at times merciless and often sympathetic.

The Children walks a similar line of near-future satire as television’s Black Mirror. If you are into intergenerational fighting, then the play is a last call to the generation who are still in control, and still destroying the planet, to act while they can. It’s the best play I’ve seen at the Melbourne Theatre Company in years both as a work of theatre and as an act of programming.

At the Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre until March 10. Image by Jeff Busby of Sarah Peirse, left, and Pamela Rabe. 

2 responses to “The Children theatre review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

  1. Interesting to read this as I am seeing the play tomorrow. I suspect “queue”instead of “cue” however is a result of the spellcheck, rather than an error b6 the reviewer!

  2. Excellent review Tobias! I saw that play earlier tonight at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. I went mainly to see Pamela Rabe, who I think is always wonderful, I’ve been seeing her in plays for about 40 years. Could that be so? No need to answer that.
    As you can tell, I’m one of those baby boomers who enjoyed the dance nostalgia trip in the play! Probably also being a baby boomer, I feel the urge to ask you to note the use of the words “queue a back story”. I think you meant “cue a back story” which a theatre critic really should get right.
    Anyway, thanks for your insight, I also found The Children difficult, and wonderful for that. And yes, isn’t the acting superb! Completely satisfying theatre. Cheers, Caro

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