‘The Children’ are Unaware of What They’re Goin’ Through

In Lucy Kirkwood’s play, much of England is destroyed after a nuclear event.

In her vision of planet Earth’s ecological end times, Lucy Kirkwood brings one of the undead back to life. After a 30-year absence, Rose (Anne Darragh) appears on Hazel’s (Julie Eccles) front door. They, along with Hazel’s husband Robin (James Carpenter), used to work together at a nuclear power plant as scientists. Hazel tells Rose that she’d heard Rose had committed suicide in America. Perhaps that’s why Hazel hits Rose on the nose when she shows up so unexpectedly and, apparently, up from the grave. She thought she’d seen a ghost.

The audience doesn’t actually see the blow and Hazel only alludes to it later. The Children begins minutes after Rose’s surprising arrival. Her white shirt is stained with blood and stays that way throughout this one-act play. As Eccles plays her, Hazel’s violent act seems out of character, until Robin comes home from his afternoon ramble. The instant Hazel walks off stage and into the bedroom Robin and Rose speak conspiratorially and sidle up close for a lover’s embrace. They’ve been having an on-again, off-again affair for several years. But the timing of their relationship and how that jibes with her return from America never makes much sense.

When Hazel reveals to both of them later that she knew about their affair, the violence makes more sense but casts doubt on her initial statement that she’d heard Rose was dead. Was Hazel lying at the start of the play or has Kirkwood written an unreliable narrator? Regardless of how fuzzy the plot details are, love, or the lack of it, is the least pressing concern the three of them have to contend with.

Hazel and Robin live in a cottage by the sea because it’s outside of a contaminated zone where they used to live. A nuclear accident irradiated part of England but it’s unclear what the scale of the damage has been. There’s no explanation as to why they alone have escaped from the disaster or if the plant they worked at is the one that failed.

Kirkwood, rather than containing The Children inside of a single genre, upends the notion of genre altogether. Hazel and Robin have several children but are mainly concerned with their troubled daughter. When she calls on the phone, it sets them both on edge. But this family melodrama, along with the love triangle, are feints. She concentrates our attention on them so we can get to know the characters and how they interact with each other. The playwright uses a familiar dramatic setting, a cozy cottage by the sea, and turns the audience’s expectations of it into a nightmare.

Hazel and Robin are frightened of something much scarier than zombies: drinking water is scarce. And they worry about the irradiated earth that must be poisoning their vegetable garden. Rose however, doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. And she hasn’t returned from her real or imagined exile to claim Robin’s heart. She’s come to claim both of them, body and soul (she’s vampire not a zombie). The power plant they all worked at is malfunctioning but still operating. Rose explains that, after they and their colleagues retired, the plant hired younger scientists. She’s come to ask them to return to work with her so that the older generation can absorb the damage (and the radiation) they created in the first place. Rose believes in the idea of a noble sacrifice. Going back to work would mean certain death.

When Hazel strikes Rose and bloodies her nose and shirt, it feels like an unconscious expression of her hatred for Rose. With the real reason for her visit now out in the open, the blow feels not only overdue but justified. It may have been in retaliation for Rose’s affair with Robin but for Hazel the sight of Rose must have also signaled that bad news was in the offing.

Kirkwood’s message is straightforward enough but she waits too long to deliver it. These old folks created a mess. It’s up to them to fix it. But are they willing to take responsibility for nearly destroying the planet? Will they sacrifice themselves in order to save the next generation? These questions cause the playwright’s dramatic engine to sputter out. Despite the background noise and menace of an ecological disaster, the play only sparks to life when Hazel and Rose unleash their antipathies towards one another. Their toxic friendship is a compelling yet unexplored source of melodrama.

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