Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
April 3, 2018

The post-nuclear-catastrophe dystopia of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children isn’t a barren landscape of dog-eat-dog savages huddled around bin-fires, rather it’s an intimate domestic scene in which scarcity abounds in more subtle ways. Water is carefully portioned, electricity is intermittent, food is grown but meat is rare – and in the British playwright’s topical three-hander, these concerns play out against the depletion of other finite resources, like health, time and even love.

“Retired people are like nuclear power stations. We like to live by the sea,” says Hazel, played by Pamela Rabe in this co-production between Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies, which has opened at the Sydney Opera House after a run at Southbank.

The Children, Sydney Theatre CompanySarah Pierse and Pamela Rabe in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Children. Photo © Jeff Busby

Unlike Kirkwood’s epic Chimerica, which was produced by Sydney Theatre Company last year, the action in The Children – such as it is in this fiercely dialogue-driven play – takes place in a single room of a sea-side cottage. Elizabeth Gadsby’s set is a detailed, wooden beach-house with the lightly mismatched furniture of temporary or holiday accommodation, a cosy space that becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the personal drama unfolds. Doors open to let in light, air and the sound of the ocean, thanks to Paul Jackson’s lighting and Steve Francis’ sound.

Hazel is a retired nuclear scientist living in the borrowed cottage with her husband Robin (William Zappa) – also a nuclear scientist – after a disaster at the power station where they spent their careers has rendered their home unliveable. The unexpected arrival of an old friend and colleague, Rose (Sarah Peirse), triggers a series of revelations with the cumulative force of a tsunami.

Written in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Kirkwood’s play probes ideas of energy management and intergenerational responsibility as well as the more personal concerns of ageing, health and parenthood. While there are a few moments of didactic dialogue, it’s the personal relationships between the trio on stage that fuse the work together thanks to fine, well-balanced performances from the actors.

The Children, Sydney Theatre CompanyWilliam Zappa and Sarah Peirse in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Children. Photo © Jeff Busby

Rabe is captivating as the nervous, health-food-loving, yoga-enthusiast Hazel, playing off her opposite number Peirse, the jaded, cigarette-smoking Rose. The opening sequence is an awkward, jagging conversation between the pair – subjects are changed, questions are ignored, brushed off or repeated as sore points and histories begin to emerge through English sitcom style dialogue that belies deeper undercurrents. The finely choreographed exchanges are wedded to small tasks of hospitality (making tea, washing lettuce) in what becomes a veritable dance of visual and verbal allusions – splashed with liberal amounts of comic relief. Robin returns home into the middle of this dynamic, Zappa upbeat and belligerent as the by turns rascally and volatile scientist-turned-amateur-wine-maker, who has his own history with both women.

Director Sarah Goodes finds an arc in this piece that builds gradually to crash like a wave, only to recede once more in the denouement. If there are moments when humour and drama oscillate awkwardly, there are also revelations that knock the wind out of you. Through the three characters on stage, we see a history spanning decades and continents, a workplace across generations and a wider network of family and community. From inside their tiny cottage, Rabe, Peirse and Zappa paint a vivid world outside its walls, a world – not so distant from ours – in which sacrifices must be made.

Sydney Theatre Company’s The Children is at the Sydney Opera House until May 19


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