Review: The apocalypse has arrived in Lucy Kirkwood’s gripping ‘The Children’

Elizabeth Elias Huffman, Lily Knight and Ron Bottitta in "The Children" at the Fountain Theatre.
(Jenny Graham)

Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” follows the wisdom of the environmental slogan “think globally, act locally.”

The play, which is having its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain Theatre (running through Jan. 23), deals with a spiraling catastrophe that uncannily recalls the sequence of events that led to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. That’s a daunting subject, but the drama keeps an extremely tight focus on the revealing small talk of its characters.

The action of “The Children” is set in a country kitchen in a run-down home on the east coast of England, where a series of natural disasters unleashed a man-made horror that is still raging out of control. Over the course of a long and sometimes dallying act, Kirkwood unravels the intricate backstory of three scientists, who in ways good and ill turn out to be exemplary of their baby boomer generation.


Long married, Hazel (Lily Knight) and Robin (Ron Bottitta) are retired nuclear scientists who have taken up residence in a cottage with temperamental plumbing after their nearby house was inundated by the tsunami. Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman), a nuclear physicist once romantically linked with Robin, shows up at the couple’s door mysteriously after a 38-year absence.

The cottage (quaintly realized in Andrew Hammer’s scenic design) is a little further outside what is called the “exclusion zone” than Hazel and Robin’s farmhouse, which they decided to abandon, farm animals and all. The cows are a source of great concern to Robin, who is reportedly tending to them when Rose arrives with a bloody nose that seems to have resulted from an accident involving Hazel.

Kirkwood, a talented British playwright who came into prominence with her 2013 play “Chimerica,” supplies hints and innuendos where other writers would provide straightforward exposition. “The Children,” which was nominated for a Tony Award in 2018, owes a debt to the enigmatic style of Harold Pinter, though the dialogue isn’t as taut and the menace hovering over the characters is a bit easier to trace.

What Kirkwood excels at is creating characters that audiences want to learn more about. We hang on to every word in Hazel and Rose’s chipped conversation to better understand not only the fraught situation they’re living through but also to get a handle on the tensions bubbling up from their mutual past.

There’s much fussing about the domestic situation. The electricity is out, so Hazel is forced to serve tea from a thermos. She fixes a salad and fills Rose in on how they’ve been surviving what she describes as a “one-in-ten-million-years fault sequence” involving the nuclear power station.

Hazel asks if Rose has come up to this part of the country to lend her expertise in the recovery effort, but Rose dismisses the suggestion. It’s only after Robin arrives that it becomes clear why she’s there. Rose has a request to make to her former power station colleagues — a request that spells out their responsibility to rectify the damage they had a hand in creating, even if it comes at the cost of their own lives.


The personal and professional lives of the characters are not easily disentangled. Rose, a cancer survivor, is unmarried and childless. Hazel and Robin have four adult children, one of whom seems to be struggling to put her life in order.

The characters’ relationship to the future is shaped by these private circumstances. Rose smokes, Hazel is obsessed with yoga and Robin has a history of drinking too much at parties and pursuing beautiful women.

Kirkwood provides this information to get us to consider more carefully the relationship between the individual and society. The world that Hazel, Robin and Rose have helped build — a world in the midst of ecological collapse — is the one they’ll sooner than later be leaving behind. What do these still-vital seniors owe future generations?

The title of the play hints at the concern for posterity, though Kirkwood finds playful ways of pointing out the immaturity of these gifted scientists, whose brilliance has wreaked havoc. Robin enters carrying a tricycle that he eventually rides around the kitchen in a raucous moment of levity that becomes disturbing much later after a Geiger counter goes off.

When Rose uses the faulty bathroom, Hazel, who understands the inner workings of nuclear fission, anxiously asks if she did “number one or a number two?” After a couple of bottles of Robin’s homemade wine, the characters degenerate into an angry high school love triangle. The childishness, which isn’t overplayed, hints at something stunted in these otherwise quite capable adults.

At the Royal Court in London, where I first encountered “The Children,” the play provided a feast for an exquisite cast of British stage veterans. Francesca Annis, Deborah Findlay and Ron Cook, under the direction of James Macdonald, put on a master class of presentational acting that never lost its realistic footing.


The Fountain production, directed by Simon Levy, works best when it’s rooted in quiet psychological detail. The naturalness of Knight’s Hazel, a mother who just happens to have an advanced education in a subject beyond most mere mortals, lends a cozy familiarity to an apocalyptic tale.

In the more flamboyant role of Rose, Huffman delicately balances the worldliness and woundedness of her character. Bottitta is a touch too boisterous as the attention-seeking Robin. But in his less frenzied moments, he burrows deep under his character’s skin.

Levy’s direction loses control as the play shifts into higher theatrical gears. A nostalgic dance sequence (set here to the Doobie Brothers’ classic “Listen to the Music”) leaves the actors stranded. The lyricism that’s paired with some yoga moves at the end of the drama also fails to hit the mark.

But the radioactive dilemma at the heart of “The Children” about generational selfishness and sacrifice powerfully comes through. Following the theater’s outdoor production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” The Fountain bravely continues to bring L.A. audiences important contemporary works the larger theaters in town still haven’t the courage or vision to produce.

'The Children'

Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. End Jan. 23, 2022

Tickets: $25-$45; Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Monday night

Contact: (323) 663-1525 or

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)