First published in The Times, Saturday March 5 2022
It is a tale as old as theatre itself. Two people, in a lonely place, enjoying a delicate equilibrium, are disturbed by an unexpected knock at the door. In walks an unwelcome figure from the past, an avenging angel or perhaps even Death herself, and the fragile balance of the household is instantly and irretrievably broken.
In Lucy Kirkwood’s 2016 play, the couple in question are Hazel and Robin, retired British nuclear engineers, who have found themselves caught up in the fallout from a nuclear accident at the coastal plant they designed and once helped run. The incident recalls the Fukushima disaster of 2011: a “one in ten million years” combination of earthquake and tidal wave that has forced the couple to relocate to a tiny cottage with heavily rationed electricity, subsisting on salad and bread, while the wreck of their old house festers behind an exclusion zone.
We are aware from the opening moments of Andrew Panton’s painstaking production that the arrival out of the blue of Rose (Emily Winter), a former colleague, is a source of tension for the breezy, well-ordered Hazel (Irene Macdougall), though we are not immediately told why. When Robin (Barrie Hunter) returns home, it becomes obvious that he and Rose once enjoyed more than a professional relationship, but this is a mere McGuffin: Rose has a graver reason for visiting. The slow teasing out of backstory as the characters skirt around their true intentions is what makes Kirkwood’s play as compelling and suspenseful as a thriller.
No one involved could have predicted that this revival would be opening on the very evening that Russian forces seized a huge nuclear plant in Ukraine. That said, Kirkwood’s play goes beyond its central, apocalyptic event, to address questions of personal responsibility and the extent to which older generations should be involved in cleaning up the messes they have left for their children. The atmosphere of Panton’s production is one of quiet, slow-building menace, enhanced by Karen Tennant’s Chernobyl-inspired set design and Simon Wilkinson’s intimate lighting, and matched by pitch-perfect performances from the ensemble.
Box office: 01382 223530, to March 19. Dundeerep.co.uk