National Theatre, London – until 28 December 2017
A COSMIC CLASH OF PHYSICS AND FAMILY
Ah, now this is what the National Theatre is for! A great reckless sprawl of a brand-new play, with spectacular technology, extraordinary design (Katrina Lindsay!) and the very best of actors: all thrown at it, and directed with wit, clarity and humanity by Rufus Norris. It’s not perfect, but it’s not afraid of anything. That is to love. That wins the fifth mouse.
For Lucy Kirkwood’s latest is a Catherine-wheel run amok, hurling out ideas and themes , questions and feelings and paradoxes and jokes. It is about cutting-edge physics, cosmology, grief, adolescence, pregnancy, sisterhood, sexting, psychosis, exasperation, the limitations of intelligence , and sad physical decay. It is set amid scientists on the Great Hadron Collider , with added Toblerone and three very funny jokes about Switzerland.
Possibly there are too many themes in it, streaming out and colliding like the proton chaos far below, sometimes threatening that there won’t be enough gravity to hold the play’s atoms together, or creating a Black Hole too dense to comprehend (see how dizzy atomic physics makes us laymen, and that indeed is part of the point). But Kirkwood it fetches you back, generally with a snort of laughter. Not least from Amanda Boxer as Granny Karen, mother of the two ill-assorted sisters at its heart, who steals every scene she stumps into. She isn’t quite its centre, but has a doll of a part as the matriarch who once nearly won a Nobel prize and has no illusions left. “Love! Everyone thinks love is the greatest force i the cosmos and it isn’t, you know. The greatesr force in the cosmos is the Nuclear Strong Force. Love’s about twelve things down the list, after gravity and superglue..”
At its heart, though, displaying the complexities and infuriations of family love with pitiless admiration, are two tremendous performances: Olivia Williams as Alice, a brilliant atomic physicist working on the Great Hadron Collider at Cern, and her sister – the matchlessly funny, subtle, nuanced Olivia Colman as her dimmer but sparkier sister Jenny. In the opening scene clever Alice is on a flying visit to her sister, who after eleven years and IVF is pregnant and anxious, Googling too much and refusing an ultrasound because she read it causes dyslexia (in rats!) she provokes Alice’s cry of “Just because you have access to information doesn’t mean you’re equipped to use it!” . Ah, that speaks for many exasperated experts in the age of the Internet.
Then we are in Geneva, where the physicist’s son Luke, a wonderful portrayal by Joseph Quinn as a mass of teenage hormones, anxiety and goodwill, is online with a minx called Natalie. Overbright, underconfident, lonely at his international school, at odds with his mother, infuriated by the merry illogicality of his aunt Jenny, he careers towards a tiny personal collision which, in the moment, is cosmic to him. His father by the way has disappeared, becoming a strange wandering narrator and scientific expatiator who wanders throughout around the edge or occasionally takes the centre of the round stage in a whirl of projected atoms to explain the beginning and end of all matter: in the cast list he is”The Boson” (Paul Hilton) but the part has is a human resonance and importance to the others which is intensely moving.
The family dynamic, driven by a real and ordinary sadness, is as unpredictable and potentially disastrous as the rumours about the great machine beneath them. The GHC is switched on with fabulous sounds and lights, on the very day that Jenny and the troublesome old mother Karen turn up on a visit to a too-small apartment. No spoilers, but as particles collide so do sisters, parents and children. A black hole of despair is swallowing Jenny. The perils and glories of ignorance are nicely counterbalanced by those attached to intense, brain-frying intelligence. It is an intimate family story and a chalice of familiar bitterness , capable in its fearless author’s hands of lurching into a sci-fi-future and back into a messy redemption. Love it.