Written in the wake of Brexit, and steeped in a moment when distrust of experts seems frighteningly de rigueur, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes buzzes with big questions about science, belief and calamitous barriers to communication and understanding. The third of Kirkwood’s plays to be staged by Sydney Theatre Company, these concerns are explored through the unassuming prism of the domestic family drama, as in last year’s post-apocalyptic The Children.

Mosquitoes, Sydney Theatre CompanyJacqueline McKenzie and Mandy McElhinney in Sydney Theatre Company’s Mosquitoes. Photo © Daniel Boud

It’s 2008, and Alice (Jacqueline McKenzie) is a physicist on the verge of discovering the Higgs boson particle. Life seems just peachy, until her sloppy, bereaved sister Jenny (Mandy McElhinney) turns up on her Geneva doorstep with their mother Karen (Annie Byron) in tow. Having fallen victim to the fearmongering around vaccination, Jenny has recently lost her baby daughter to the measles, taken as the latest example of her “epically thick” character. It’s a sentiment expressed by Alice, shared by her teenage son Luke (a committed Charles Wu) and emphatically echoed by Karen, herself once a Nobel Prize-worthy scientist. But dig a little deeper and you see that it is Alice that could use some of Jenny’s moral courage and emotional intelligence, for while she may be top of the tree at work, she seems less equipped to deal with life’s realities. In an effective bit of characterisation, she initially fails to connect Karen’s incontinence with her old age, insisting on a trip to the doctor’s and baffled by Jenny’s unfazed attitude.

Mosquitoes, Sydney Theatre CompanyCharles Wu, Jacqueline McKenzie and Mandy McElhinney in Sydney Theatre Company’s Mosquitoes. Photo © Daniel Boud

It’s a promising, if not original dynamic, and much of the play’s power comes from McKenzie and McElhinney’s thoughtful portrayals. Wisely, newly appointed Resident Director Jessica Arthur emphasises these performances in her spare, fluid staging, beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper. As Jenny, McElhinney wrings every laugh from Kirkwood’s spiky dialogue, her bolshy exterior only just masking her deep grief and desire to forge a greater connection with Alice. She perfectly realises Jenny’s panic at the prospect of being asked to leave, and strikes just the right balance between despair and betrayal when she insists she would have vaccinated her daughter if Alice had only told her to. Disappointingly, the very fine McKenzie has comparatively little to do as Alice, who is less substantially drawn and remains roughly the same character from beginning to end. Despite this, she still offers up a compelling portrait of somebody dissatisfied with her lot without fully realising it herself, quick to discount the feelings of others when it suits her.

Mosquitoes, Sydney Theatre CompanyJacqueline McKenzie and Mandy McElhinney in Sydney Theatre Company’s Mosquitoes. Photo © Daniel Boud

I suspect many would have been content if Kirkwood had just presented us with a study in sibling strife, a less ambitious prospect though that may be. As it stands, she has corralled one too many big ideas into the play, meaning that it sags in a number of places. Sequences with an ambiguous scientist figure by the name of “Boson” (Jason Chong) holding forth on atomic theory are just ponderous, while secondary storylines are capably realised but ultimately feel underdeveloped. The subplot involving Luke’s romantic interest Natalie (an engaging Nikita Waldron), his disappearance and then brush with revenge porn stretches credulity, while the ramifications of Jenny coming on to her sister’s boyfriend (Louis Seguier) and then downing a fistful of pills are strangely swept away. And though wickedly riveting in Annie Byron’s hands, Karen is more or less a caricature, culminating in a spanking scene that’s similarly left dangling.

While I felt The Children’s interrogation of generational responsibility in the face of climate catastrophe may have been blunt, the science meshed much better with the interpersonal drama. Here it feels clumsier, the narrative cogs working overtime to make the point that just as we need experts, experts also have a moral duty to at least try to make themselves understood. This is just one idea in a surfeit of them, and it gets drowned out by competing strands of story that take in everything from the implications of natural selection, the question of who gets to reproduce, and cyberbullying. What redeems Mosquitoes into something poignant and involving are the emotional truths Kirkwood sows in the fractious, tender relationship between two sisters.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Mosquitoes is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 18


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