An apocalypse has occurred. We are left to examine the fallout in a lopsided English seaside cottage.

In a room that makes us feel unsteady, there is something disconcerting about the yoga mat leaning against a pot belly stove that looks to have never been lit. There are cracks in the walls, a basket of laundry askew and a woman with a bloody nose. This is a snapshot of somebody’s domesticity, but it’s not the characters we are about to meet.

Tina Bursill in The Children. Photo © Matt Byrne/State Theatre South Australia

Written by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica; Mosquitoes), the premise – a nuclear plant disaster following an earthquake and tsunami – would be prima facie ludicrous, were it not based on real-world events. Retired nuclear scientists learn they have been left wanting in the planning and execution part of their former jobs as, yes, nuclear scientists. They consider whether to try and make amends when things go from bad to worse.

Directed by Corey McMahon, three-characters – Rose (Tina Bursill), Hazel (Genevieve Mooy) and Robin (Terence Crawford) – examine their existence over one linear scene. This is a glacially-paced indulgence that promises to lead to important conclusions but, like real life, does not drop us off at our hoped-for destination.

State Theatre Company South Australia’s The Children. Photo © Victoria Lamb

Set and Costume Designer Victoria Lamb presents an almost cartoonish abode that, apart from a neat reveal, is functional at the expense of both aesthetics and audience viewing from the sub-stage-level seats.

Composer Belinda Gehlert’s somewhat under-utilised but evocative compositions, add dramatic tension to a script that is not without intrigue, but is about as subtle as a nuclear disaster.

The dialogue is dotted with insinuation, humour and innuendo (not necessarily in that order), delivered by a trio who, for a bunch of scientists, are surprisingly light on chemistry. Problematically, The Children is a gathering of three unlikeable characters who do absolutely nothing to make themselves, their unlikeable friends and (integral to the title) their unlikeable children, more appealing. Speculation, were it to be made towards an outcome, is quickly transferred from individual to greater good, if for no other reason than we hope the whole is more worthy of investment than the sum of these parts.

Opening night performances revealed glimpses and then scenes of a solid show, but the timing issues made for some uncomfortable moments; an awkwardness that cannot be afforded characters as dislocated as these.

Genevieve Mooy, Tina Bursill and Terence Crawford in The Children. Photo © Matt Byrne/State Theatre South Australia

Promotionally, we are asked to consider what responsibility does each generation have for the next and we long for this to be a thorough examination. Towards the close, the bizarre but well executed dance scene should act to lull us into a false sense of security before we’re blown away by the denouement. Instead, it feels like the script runs out of plot.

Then, just as we are puzzled about what is happening, a special effect is employed which almost works to keep us on track. But apart from a huge appreciation for the mechanics of the device, the effort does not deliver the dramatic payoff we are so desperate for. Parallels can be drawn with climate change, but it’s a real stretch to see it as anything other than a plumbing problem.

The show notes state that playwright Lucy Kirkwood wanted her narrative to be emotionally, rather than intellectually driven. This comes at a cost. Perhaps we haven’t met enough nuclear scientists in post-apocalyptic settings, but the characters seem spectacularly unresourceful in a deepening crisis that involves radioactive material, electricity and food supply. They seem bewildered that their environmental mismanagement has led to disaster and utterly perplexed as to whether they should try and do anything about it.

Meanwhile, they reminisce about the good old days, when Boomers invented sex. The trio’s peccadillos are as annoying as they sound, but effective as a device – the parallels to real life are, once again, not lost on us. The best parts of this promising production are well delivered one-liners and reminiscences of past events that take us beyond the four walls of the cottage.

The Children leans heavily on the study of the inhabitants of the bucolic idyll-gone-wrong, holding back poignant lessons about climate change in favour of the promise of a bleak future.

The Children plays at the Adelaide Festival Centre until February 17.

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