Review: ‘The Children’ at Manhattan Theatre Club

The Manhattan Theatre Club has imported the London Royal Court Theatre’s production of The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, and with it have come the highly acclaimed original cast (Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, and Deborah Findlay) and the original director, James Macdonald. It’s a pleasure to welcome back all three of these excellent actors. They clearly understand and empathize with their characters, delivering very specific people to us.

In a remote cottage somewhere on the battered east coast of Britain, two retired nuclear engineers are living a quiet life. When an old friend shows up at their door, they are shocked to learn the real reason for her visit. These three have a history which will unravel before us in the almost two hours that follow, and it will be full of surprises. The program indicates no special time for their encounter, but it’s clearly Ms. Kirkwood’s intention to scare us, so it could very well be right now.

Ron Cook, Francesca Annis, and Deborah Finley. Photograph courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club.

As her play begins, we meet Rose, the unexpected guest, tending to a nose bleed in the kitchen of the shoddy house in which Hazel and Robin, her old colleagues, have been living since the core meltdown of the nuclear power plant a few miles away–the plant in which they had all been involved since its creation.

Mystery surrounds these three. Just what past they have shared, and the real reason for Rose’s visit, will be revealed to us slowly. It’s all very absorbing, but it does take its time, and I found myself drifting from time to time. Ultimately the plant is restored sufficiently to allow the lights to be turned on again (candles were put to good use while we were waiting). Ms. Kirkwood knows how to subtly plant an idea early on only to return to it at a useful moment when she uses it to jolt us. Macdonald’s direction makes good use of the cramped kitchen space as he manages to move his three actors about, and Ms. Kirkwood finds suitable excuses to send one or the other out now and then so that the remaining two can have a meaningful tête-à-tête. The little kitchen becomes increasingly claustrophobic and frightening as the play moves on to its conclusion.

To sum up, here we have a literate play written about a frighteningly plausible situation which the playwright suggests is closer than we think. It’s made even more potent via the grounded performances of three veteran actors who’ve done their homework and polished their performances so that we often feel we’re eavesdropping. The design of scenery and costumes (Miriam Buether,) and the projections of Peter Mumford are all on the same page, so our escape at final curtain into the New York night air was refreshing. I would like to have been more emotionally involved in it all, to be more moved by it than I was, but there’s no doubt it suggests what might happen if we make a wrong choice at the next exit we take on life’s highway.

Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

The Children runs through February 4, 2017, at the Manhattan Theatre Club–261 West 47th Street in New York City, NY. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (212) 239-6210 or online.

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