Theatre review: The Children, Adelaide Festival Centre

Award-winning UK playwright Lucy Kirkwood examines the fall-out from a nuclear disaster.
The Children at Adelaide Festival Centre. Two women and a man stand inside interior of a house.

State Theatre SA has opened its 2024 season with a new production of The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s ambitious play about the planet and our role in an unpredictable future. The Children opened in London in 2016 and has been popular in the UK, the US and here in Australia.

The play opens with one character, Rose (Tina Bursill), standing centre stage in the middle of a ramshackle cottage. There’s an effective moment of silence as we take in the scene and then Hazel (Genevieve Mooy) enters. The first half an hour belongs to these two characters; only then does Robin (Terence Crawford), husband of one and lover of the other, take his place on stage.  

We soon learn that the three of them worked together at the nearby nuclear power plant; an earthquake and tsunami led to the recent disaster, so we can think Fukushima in the English countryside. We learn that the cottage is just outside the 10-mile (17-kilometre) exclusion zone, but Robin apparently returns to their old farm inside the zone every day to see his cows. For intelligent people who were senior nuclear physicists, and who should therefore understand the dangers more than most, this is just one of the many seemingly silly and irresponsible things they do.

Despite its promise, The Children is much less about the big issues of survival, environmental sustainability and intergenerational responsibility – to our children and their children – and much more a rather tawdry domestic drama. These three characters seem more fixated on examining the past than fixing the future. Their conversations are stilted and even these three accomplished actors have difficulty delivering some of these lines with anything like believable conviction. 

It’s disappointing that Kirkwood’s characters are such cardboard cut-outs that even the greatest actor would find it hard to bring them to life. Rose is the confident, exotic single woman who never had children; Hazel is the dowdy, long-suffering wife and mother of four; Robin is the cad who tries to weasel out of his sins with parsnip wine and caustic humour. When the end of the world comes, I pray I’m not trapped in a cottage with these three!

Director Corey McMahon has clearly tried to imbue the characters with a sense of passion and purpose, but this just makes the dialogue sound even more pedantic and insincere. We see precious little emotion despite the extraordinary circumstances and conflicted personal relationships. There’s also a distinct lack of chemistry despite their obvious intimacy.

The action, such as it is, all takes place in the cottage. Instead of making it look genuinely shabby, designer Victoria Lamb has created a Disneyfied set replete with cartoon-cracks and very clean grime.  Lighting designer Nic Mollison tries to create some atmosphere, as does sound designer Andrew Howard and composer Belinda Gehlert, but it’s difficult to overcome the problems of such a heavy-handed script. 

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The climax, which I won’t spoil for you, is not quite what you may expect. There is some humour along the way, and certainly the audience went along with it when this reviewer attended, but ultimately it’s just all a little exhausting. 

The Children by Lucy Kirkwood at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
State Theatre Company South Australia
Director: Corey McMahon
Set and Costume Designer: Victoria Lamb
Lighting Designer: Nic Mollison
Composer: Belinda Gehlert
Sound Designer: Andrew Howard
Cast: Tina Bursill, Terence Crawford, Genevieve Mooy

Tickets: $39-$85
The Children will be performed until 17 February 2024.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.