Drama Theatre, April 3, until May 19


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William Zappa and Sarah Peirse. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The play begins and ends with the sound of waves; with the rhythm of inevitability. And yet in between it keeps you wondering. Will it become soggily sentimental? Will some devastating secret be revealed? Will the underlying resentments explode? And for just shy of its two hours it keeps twisting out of the grasp of predictability.

A year ago Sydney Theatre Company staged British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, a sprawling work about the Tiananmen Square massacre with a cast of 33 and an essentially unsuccessful attempt to reduce the political to the personal via intricate plotting. Also political, The Children is much more sophisticated, the human stories entwined with the environmental dimension rather than being add-ons. Kirkwood’s points of view are now sublimated within the work, rather than the work existing to espouse them.

This manifests itself in her being largely non-judgemental about the key issue of intergenerational responsibility – even if in part the play’s title affectionately lampoons three baby boomers now in their 60s. One of them, Hazel, after all, confesses that she doesn’t “know how to want less” – surely the very definition of a child!

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William Zappa and Pamela Rabe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Hazel (Pamela Rabe) and Robin (William Zappa) get by in a primitive, electricity-denuded cottage beyond the exclusion zone where a nuclear reactor has melted down after a Fukushima-style tsunami on the coast of England. Previously engineers at the reactor, they had retired to a nearby house and farm, now trashed by the tsunami and radiation. When Rose (Sarah Peirse), once a co-nuclear engineer, shows up, Hazel has not seen her for decades. Robin, however, has enjoyed a rather more intimate connection.

Kirkwood again deploys a flair for tailoring her considerable wit very precisely for each character. In fact the play’s opening phase is laden with laughs and barbs, such as Hazel observing that while Rose may have had neither children nor pets, as a sort of consolation prize she at least has kept her figure. Yet, as they wash in and out over the bed of dialogue, the laughs hide neither the enmity that Hazel feels towards Rose, nor the scale of the catastrophe that lurks just up the road.

Hazel is almost maniacally trying to stay young, a fight that Robin (who has a face “like a haunted house”) has already royally lost thanks, in some order, to the catastrophe, his homemade parsnip wine and regrets of the heart. Rose’s feistiness, meanwhile, is a mask, and she has one last noble act within her power.

These are delicious roles, and director Sarah Goodes (in this joint STC/MTC production) has cast them shrewdly. Rabe’s comic instincts are so supreme that she can even make slicing a loaf of bread simultaneously funny and menacing. Peirse builds enough layers into her Rose that her final determination is credible, and if Zappa does not quite hit the same, ultimate sweet spot in Robin, it is fair to say that Kirkwood has not drawn him quite as deftly, either.

With a literal design by Elizabeth Gadsby this is a good rather than a great play, and at times I even doubted that much, so vexing were some moments of banality and so dubiously pat seemed the ending. It was only when I walked outside, away from the theatre, that I realised the world had changed just a little for me. Kirkwood, Rabe, Peirse, Zappa and Goodes had done that, and it wasn’t inevitable. Through those twists of unpredictability three characters who care about each other had made us care about them.