Critics sometimes warn that plays about rupturing relationships might be an unwise choice for a date night. With two of the summer’s hottest tickets, though, think twice before offering to take a sibling or your mother instead.
Mosquitoes is outwardly about science – two of its main characters are particle physicists – but it most intensely concerns the art of bringing children into the world and keeping them there. Lucy Kirkwood’s clever, funny, painful dialogue stages a round of bouts within a family over the impact of inheritance, environment and life choices.
Olivia Williams is Alice, who, as a top cog in the team building the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, has stayed close to the model of her mother, Karen Landau (Amanda Boxer), who might have won a Nobel Prize if physics hadn’t been so sexist in the past. Olivia Colman’s Jenny has rebelled against her mother and sister by being unintellectual, horoscope-obsessed and prone to believing in online blogs about, for instance, the risks of inoculation.
Mosquitoes is Kirkwood’s third major play in four years, following Chimerica (2013) and The Children late last year. They suggest a dramatic brand that explores big ideas through populist plotting. Sudden deaths, sexual betrayals, hideous social embarrassments and even nuclear explosions are frames for debate about the post-Cold War relationship between capitalism and communism (Chimerica), the selfishness of baby boomers (The Children), or, in Mosquitoes, the responsibilities of science and the irresponsibility of anti-science.
The script avoids simple opposition between rationalism and intuition. Religious faith and kindness come from unexpected sources and sensible mothers have not necessarily produced offspring better equipped for life, as shown by an excruciatingly funny internet dating scene featuring Alice’s son, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who, in the cruel way of DNA, seems to have been bequeathed the worst elements of all of his relatives.
Rufus Norris’s staging repeatedly has one character tracking or circling another, risking, like the proton beams in the LHC, collision and the release of unpredictable energies. Colman has won Bafta prizes for playing comedy (Twenty Twelve) and tragedy (Broadchurch), but this role allows her to show both tones, sometimes in the same moment, as her open, deceptively happy face betrays the pain of someone clever enough to know that she has been stupid.
In Lucy Kirkwood, Jez Butterworth and James Graham, we begin to see the shape of a generation of playwrights that may one day be talked about as Caryl Churchill, Tom Stoppard and David Hare are now.
A pivotal line in Mosquitoes – “I think some people shouldn’t be allowed to have kids” – spookily proves to be the driving theme of Apologia, the next big event in the diary. The play, by Alexi Kaye Campbell – the author of the award-winning drama The Pride – was premiered quietly on the London fringe eight years ago but gets a West End revival with paparazzi outside and stars in the stalls because Stockard Channing (Grease, The West Wing) has taken the main role of a feted American art historian living in an English cottage.
Channing’s character, Kristin Miller, has summoned her family to supper, which – as evidence from Titus Andronicus to Festen demonstrates – rarely proceeds in drama from aperitifs to cheese without eruption. The matriarch has recently published a hit memoir, which has reminded her admirers of her part in the pro-feminist and anti-Vietnam struggles of the 1960s and 1970s but riled her sons, the successful Peter and the troubled Simon, by omitting any mention of them.
The nub of the play comes when Simon, arriving late to the feast, confides to his mother, “Pretty much everything we are and everything we do is a response against you.” Thus Peter, raised an atheist, is engaged to an intense American evangelical Christian, while Simon, encouraged to debate politics before he had teeth, lives with a TV soap actress who would be unlikely to be interested in a politician unless they appeared in a meme supporting a dolphin with a life-threatening condition. As in Mosquitoes, the different generations might as well be separate species, so contrasting are their priorities and vocabulary.
Joseph Millson brilliantly plays both sons, showing how they have fallen at very different angles to the tree but with some of the same bruises. But the large audiences that Jamie Lloyd’s production deserves will be drawn by the screen stars Laura Carmichael – an English actress meticulously American in accent and body language as the God-fearing girlfriend – and Channing. The latter gives an enthralling character study of someone whose faults of sarcasm, intolerance and self-absorption are balanced by intelligence and culture and who proves, when the play reaches its long-delayed arraignment for maternal neglect, to have a surprisingly plausible defence.
The scarcity of good roles for women in British theatre is a long-running scandal but, between them, Apologia and Mosquitoes deliver half a dozen.
“Mosquitoes” is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 28 September
“Apologia” is at the Trafalgar Studios, London SW1, until 18 November
This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon