If the purpose of life is to continue its perpetuity, the implication is that those of us who spawn children are naturally superior to those who don't. But does that remove the focus from what we can all do to impact and improve the world which they are going to inherit? Why bring children into a world of problems – to solve and resolve the issues we created? Don't we owe it to future generations to fix our mistakes first?
It's an achingly, bum-numbing slow watch where even the more dramatic revelatory moments pop out with a whimper rather than carry explosive bangs.
There are no children on stage in The Children, Lucy Kirkwood's slow and subtly written look at three 60-somethings as they attempt to live, matter and have purpose, rather than simply exist. But these notions around them – life being more important for having them, the way they can be used as pawns to get what we want, the struggles we face in dealing with their own problems – are key topics throughout. Indeed when Francesca Annis' outwardly stateswoman-like Rose speaks the opening line (standing in a ramshackle cottage pertaining to look normal, and with a downcast look and a bloody nose), "How are the children?", this simple question gives the sense of the disruption on this attempt at normality that she is going to bring.
Arriving unannounced after 38 years to visit married friends Robin and Hazel (Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay giving tiny performances dripping with nuanced neuroses), it takes a while for her motivations to become clear. It actually takes a very, very long while. As the details of their shared history slowly unfold, we see the importance of the mundane activities that keep them feeling alive. Cups of tea are made, salad is prepared, bread is sliced and parsnip wine is drunk. "If you're not going to grow, don't live" both Robin and Hazel exclaim separately – but the truth is that for all the exercise, yoga and farming activities they extol, they just (as most of us) cling on to their existence in the everyday.
As it transpires that they are living in the aftermath of a nuclear power station meltdown – a power station at which they all worked and so hold some degree of responsibility for the disaster – it becomes clear that their mere existence is their highest achievement. And what they do next is about their struggle with their guilt and whether they are required to make reparations and, in so doing, leave their children now – or stay as they are and let those children sort it in the future.
James Macdonald's direction is pure Royal Court fodder – as is Kirkwood's script. There are echoes of his recent treatment of Churchill's Escaped Alone (of which I was one of the few who wasn't a fan), though with slightly less pretension. Though "slightly less pretension" is a bit like saying slightly less right-wing than Thatcher such are the high levels with which to compare. Lines overlap or are left hanging, silences fill the air, there are moments of heightened (sur)reality and you are left to work out the simmering tensions underneath. Whilst on stage, very little actually happens.
There's even a moment for a break out dance routine as the three try and recreate memories of a time when they were 'alive' and with purpose. It's an achingly, bum-numbing slow watch where even the more dramatic revelatory moments (such as discovering the true nature of how their relationships intertwine, the terrifying proposal Rose has brought to them and the sad truth behind Robin's farming trips, where he supposedly takes days to bury his cows) pop out with a whimper rather than carry explosive bangs. No decisions are made, no conclusions are drawn and there are analogies and metaphors a plenty that the audience needs to work hard to try and understand (though the kitchen being flooded with shit is probably the easiest).
Whether you find this all pretentious twaddle aimed at those who rate their own intelligence based on the number of such productions they claim to understand – or a darkly moving comment on the responsibilities and actions of an ageing generation – is really dependent on personal taste. The subtlety of the performances make the characters' pain and confusion absorbing to watch. And there are even a few laughs to be had whilst batting with such life-affecting apocalyptic questions. But it's also very very long (at two hours with rarely a change of pace), possibly too clever for its own good, and raises many questions but no answers – and even the questions themselves are not always clear. If you're a fan of "Royal Court by Numbers" productions, then this won't disappoint or possibly surprise and you will enjoy adding it to discussions over a nice Claret that evening. If not, it may offer little to draw you in to this rather closed theatrical group.