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Review of 'The Children' at Nottingham Playhouse Theatre

Updated: 14 hours ago

Set in the wake of a nuclear disaster, “The Children” opens with a shocking scene – that of retired nuclear physicist Rose (Sally Dexter) covered in blood. I settled down for what I expected would be a high-octane, science fiction extravaganza – but “The Children” is something very different indeed.


The Children Poster
The poster for the play

Despite the Black Mirror-esque setup, “The Children”, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, is mostly a domestic, kitchen-sink drama, taking place over the course of a single evening, in a cottage on the edges of an “exclusion zone” – an area of land cordoned off due to high levels of radiation after an explosion at a nuclear power plant nearby. The story is largely character-led, exploring the history of three retired physicists, with the narrative taking a lower priority, meaning that the disaster itself is very much left as unexplored territory. In fact, it is up to the audience to piece together exactly what has happened via snippets of offhand dialogue – and, as such, I left a little confused, trying to work out when exactly the explosion had occurred, whether it was recent or a while ago.


Rose pays a visit to married couple Hazel (Caroline Harker) and Robin (Clive Mantle), and all three spend a great deal of time reminiscing about their past lives in the power plant. After the dramatic opening, the play boldly puts on the brakes, leaving me wondering whether there was any storyline to accompany the anecdotes and tongue-in-cheek comments about retirement (which were all very humorous but seemed at odds with the initial set up). About an hour in, the play moves up a gear as Rose makes an announcement that will change Hazel and Robin’s lives forever, and what follows is an intense dispute that is riveting to watch and superbly acted by Dexter, Harker and Mantle.


The Children
Robin (Clive Mantle), Hazel (Caroline Harker) and Rose (Sally Dexter). Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The acting is superb throughout, with each character clearly defined in their opening moments, only to be redefined later in the play as we slowly peel back the outer layers of their characters to discover their true thoughts and feelings. Harker especially is able to give the impression of a frosty ex-physicist who is content with her life and knows her own mind, only for us to discover that the opposite is true as the play goes on.


The play is full of deeper meanings – a metaphor around cows leads to a particularly moving moment between Hazel and Robin in the latter half of the show. The heart of the play explores the contrast of domestic life compared to that of someone who has chosen to remain single and childless, although whether the setting of a nuclear wasteland is the best backdrop for this exploration is up for debate. In a way, this discussion feels almost shoe-horned in, which is odd for a play that is literally titled “The Children”.


The Children
Rose (Dexter) asks Robin (Mantle) and Hazel (Harker) a life-changing question. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The set, designed by Amy Jane Cook, feels homely and realistic, despite the ceiling being open to the elements and the floor being broken in two, constantly reminding us of the post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the three characters. The lighting, designed by Jamie Platt, adjusts throughout the play to give the sense of moving from afternoon to sunset to evening, with these adjustments so subtle that they are almost unnoticeable.


Overall, this is very much a slow-burn drama, which may not necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you are in the mood for a top quality performance, offering an in-depth character study of what it means to grow old and be a parent, then this is definitely for you. And when the reveals arrive, and the characters clash in unexpected, ferocious ways, the script sings and hits in all the right ways.


“The Children” plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 6th April.


The Children
Mantle and Dexter in “The Children”. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Read more reviews by Tom Morley at https://brokenlegsblog.co.uk/

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