The Children review: Brightly disarming, deeply unsettling

Seán McGinley, Marie Mullen and Ger Ryan dazzle in Lucy Kirkwood’s play


Gate Theatre, Dublin
Although they are retirees, all former nuclear scientists, and two with adult offspring, Hazel and Robin and their surprise guest, Rose, have not entirely put away childish things.

It takes a while to realise, as Lucy Kirkwood’s brightly disarming and deeply unsettling play begins, that the reason Rose stands before us with a bloody nose is a shock reunion, after 38 years, that sounds like a playground bust-up.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Marie Mullen’s sprightly Hazel apologises, “but we thought you were dead.” Alone in a wood-panelled cottage of grim homeliness (in Sarah Bacon’s design), Ger Ryan’s stoic Rose seems to think it’s a fair assumption.

There are good reasons to be alarmed in this coastal town, which is reeling from a nuclear disaster at the nearby power plant where the three scientists once worked. That Rose’s visit stirs tensions is fabulously apparent – sometimes in gestures as minuscule as returning another person’s fruit to a bowl – sifting up past secrets, the contamination of the present, and grim possibilities for the future. “We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea,” Rose says, “then put the emergency generators in the basement! We left them with a shit show waiting to happen.”


The Children is given an accomplished production, one that keeps you guessing and leaves you thinking

As with her staging of Tribes, in 2017, Oonagh Murphy, the production's director, is wryly ambiguous about place: the characters are unfussily Irish, from a country with no nuclear history or ambition. That makes the dilemma, when it finally crystallises, as metaphorical as it is vivid, a radiation of responsibility that one generation detects for the next, that hovers over every interaction like the "filthy glitter" Rose imagines on the horizon.

That may also explain the hypnotic quality within an otherwise realistic approach. Seán McGinley’s Robin arrives with a battered tricycle and a Geiger counter, an ageing rogue denying his wounds. Ryan portrays a more teasing mystery, coldly calculating but deeply conscientious. Most protean of all is Mullen, who switches slyly between girlish dottiness and inflexible steel: proud to “leave a place cleaner than you found it” but still entitled to comfort without consequence.

Challenging without being inscrutable, the play is admirably served as an absorbing moral puzzle, in which no one is wholly wrong and no one is completely right. Like the handsomely mirrored movements Murphy finds in one giddying youthful dance, or the rich complexity in each performance, you see yourself in this play’s dark folds. It is given an accomplished production, one that keeps you guessing and leaves you thinking.

Runs until March 23rd