The Children — A.C.T. Hub, Kingston — Thursday 31 August to Saturday 9 September 2023

Review by Michele E. Hawkins.

Retired nuclear physicists Hazel and Robin have left their home and livestock for their rural cottage after a disaster at the nuclear power plant, where they have spent their working lives, has rendered the area a radioactive nightmare and Hazel and Robin’s comfortable home in the plant’s vicinity a watery ruin.  Hazel and Robin now live a simple life, being careful to eat well, keep fit, and drink only bottled, non-radioactive, water.

Without warning, old friend and colleague Rose arrives at the cottage to find Hazel at home, with Robin away looking after the cows.  It’s been thirty-three years since the three physicists worked together, thirty-three years of hardly staying in touch.  Hazel is especially confused and shocked by Rose’s sudden appearance, wondering how is it that she’s “just popped by” — from America.

Rising to the occasion and in spite of some obvious strain, Hazel puts on her best hostess shell, and Rose puts on her best visitor one.  Niceties are played out until Robin arrives home and pleasantries become even more strained.  Gradually unpleasant truths leak out, but their significance pales against the true reason for Rose’s sudden visit and the confronting questions that that raises.

The Children asks of us the kind of moral and ethical questions that we all hope we need only ever consider from our armchairs rather than act on.  What are the consequences of decisions we made in our youth when the world was a different place and we saw things through young, idealistic eyes?  And as we mature and gain in both knowledge and wisdom, how can we justify continuing to follow those earlier choices? Should we have gone a different way?  Should we have seen the dangers more clearly?  And who will pay?  It will, of course, be the children.

Bringing to vivid life the dilemma faced by each of the three individuals in The Children who must actually decide between taking the armchair and taking action is a big ask.  It requires subtlety and skill to show the tensions underlying social politeness between people who may not even really like each other or who may be desperate for one another; the awkwardness of trying to reconcile the distant past with the present in an attempt at bonhomie and even camaraderie; and finally the shattering of all charade in the face of a really grownup horror.  And it takes real acting chops to unpeel the layers from each character convincingly and, with perfect nuance and pace, lay bare his or her vulnerabilities, frailties, tragedies, compassion, and strengths as they all find themselves standing on the edge of the same precipice.

Thankfully, the three actors in this production, under the terrific direction of Tony Knight, answer in spades the challenges required to do justice toThe Children.

Karen Vickery, as Hazel, brilliantly brings to the stage an apparently indomitable woman who strides powerfully through life, who has certainties and direction, who chooses exactly how she will deal with historic unpleasantries, and who faces the future with relentless positivity.  Hazel is not a woman to be toyed with; nor will she relinquish what she’s worked and fought for.  She has rights.  And yet…

Michael Sparks, playing Robin, creates a complex individual torn between the sometimes dreary reality that has sprung from choices made long ago and his thwarted loves, dreams, and desires.  Robin is a warm, capable man, a “nice-ish husband”, but in truth a man also willing to deceive in order to find a small measure of happiness in life.  Sparks delivers a man who may have played second fiddle to his wife for all his life, but who, when it really counts, shows himself capable of the toughest decision.

Lainie Hart compellingly embodies the character of Rose, bringing to the stage a woman with a stellar career behind her, a woman on top of her game, a woman whose life is surely enviable.  When Hart, as Rose, appears unannounced after more than thirty years, she gives us a Rose who is innocent of hidden agendas, one who just happens to be in the area and who is incredibly interested in Hazel and Robin’s lives and in their children and who is keen to catch up on the gossip of former colleagues.  But Hart also gives the impression that all is not as it seems in her character’s life, and her heartfelt performance of Rose’s gradual breakdown shows us a Rose above self-pity, a woman who will do whatever it takes.

The Children is intriguing throughout and, sadly, remains relevant to us all.  Chaika Theatre’s production does the work proud.  It’s gripping from the start, and the performances are so good that we can’t help but really care about these three flawed humans who are being asked to put the past and its grievances behind them in order to do what few others can for the sake of the next generation.

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