We all know that old phrase “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” – an approach I’ve occasionally had to adopt when watching a show. But what if the opposite is true? The last thing I’d want people to think is that I’m a sycophant, devoid of a critical eye, but The Children staged at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds was one of those rare examples of the stars aligning so perfectly that I know by the end of this review, I’ll have used far too many synonyms for the word ‘brilliant’.
Now when I say that the stars aligned, I mean this in more ways than one. First of all, the play was fronted by three established stars in Imogen Stubbs, Gillian Bevan, and Michael Higgs. But simply attaching talented actors to a project doesn’t guarantee success, and the other metaphorical astral components played an equal part in mustering what was a production of such perfection.
Firstly, there was the extraordinary writing of Lucy Kirkwood, and in The Children we have arguably one of the best scripts of the 21st century. We are also looking at a Director at the top of his game in Owen Calvert-Lyons, whose vision as Artistic Director is rejuvenating this grand institution of performing arts in the town, enriching the programme at the Theatre with bold, challenging shows such as this one.
Though I hate giving a synopsis as part of my review, I have to concede on this occasion, as though the play is well-revered, being so recently written, there are plenty of us who will have not yet had the chance to see it. The story is essentially a series of conversations of increasing urgency and tension between three retired nuclear scientists, married couple Hazel and Robin, and their distant friend/colleague, Rose, who drops in on them unexpectedly with an ulterior motive. It’s set against the backdrop of a nuclear disaster that’s occurred, forcing many people, including Hazel and Robin, to leave their homes. And it’s in the fairly basic coastal cabin that they’ve escaped to, that the action and seismic conversations, addressing themes of ageing, climate change, love, regrets, and responsibility all take place.
Where Gillian Bevan and Michael Higgs as Hazel and Robin appeared to be a settled, sensible couple, all salads, yoga, and organisation, by contrast Imogen Stubbs as Rose was the whirling dervish - glamorous, single, and with an apparent twinkle in her eye.
It was an absolute pleasure to see some more experienced actors given the freedom to get stuck into some really meaty roles, and it was an opportunity that the three of them seized, giving a highly accomplished execution of the rich material afforded them. When you get to the level that Imogen, Gillian, and Michael occupy, it’s the finer details about performances that can set actors apart from one another. For instance, the underrated skill of interrupting and talking over one another was used throughout. It seems a trivial thing to pick out, but as an actor it can be tempting to cut your line short in order to hear your cue line, but the three actors displayed complete trust in one another to offer us a seamless and authentic conversational style.
It was also fascinating to feel the atmosphere of the piece change when one of the characters left the room. Sure, it could have been done with a shift in the lighting or sound perhaps, but whether it was a subtle look, an arched eyebrow perhaps, or a tensing of the posture, Imogen, Gillian, and Michael showed us that there’s more to this acting lark than simply learning lines and projecting well.
And speaking of finer details, the fairly simple but highly effective set design didn’t go unnoticed, with its additional touches of shingle and driftwood adding a subtle nod to the coastal setting.
Usually if a reviewer mentions lighting and sound, it’s because they’re not able to think of much else positive to pick out. Not so with this production - the attention to detail with subtle sounds of the coastal setting throughout were a classy touch that simply heightened the atmosphere. The sparing use of lighting also neatly encapsulated the feeling of a simpler, if slightly inconvenient, post-disaster life. It also added a bit of extra poignancy when Hazel frustratedly yells “We don’t have a right to electricity”.
The Children continues until the 25th March – it’s quite simply a phenomenal piece of theatre, and one that needs to be seen. Tickets for the remaining performances are available via theatreroyal.org