Among many UK cities on my list, Salisbury is one that I’d especially like to visit, not only for the towering Salisbury Cathedral, but also for Salisbury Playhouse minutes away. Now is the perfect time to catch the Playhouse’s run of Lucy Kirkwood’s play, The Children, from April 7 through 23.
Set in the aftermath of a flood by a nuclear power station, the drama highlights the topics of aging and responsibility. The Royal Court Theatre’s original production made waves in London in 2016, earning the No. 3 spot on The Guardian’s list, “The 50 Best Theatre Shows of the 21st Century.”
Belinda Lang (Duet for One, Single Spies, 2point4 Children) stands at the helm of this English regional premiere, directing veteran actors Christine Kavanagh (An Inspector Calls) as Rose, Joanne Pearce (What Shadows) as Hazel, and Brian Protheroe (Little Women) as Robin. I spoke with Lang by WhatsApp after a day of rehearsals to dive into her acting and directing experiences, the play’s plot, and unique challenges about this production.
Wearing Three Hats: Director, Actor, and Adapter
What do you find fulfilling about being a director?
Although I haven’t written the play or been in any way creative about its inception, I feel I’ve made something because I’ve joined up all the dots and told this story as clearly, I hope, as possible. I love bringing people together and making companies.
How does your acting experience help you tap into your director mode?
I always found as an actor that I am concerned with the whole, watching and thinking, “I’m not sure about this, that, and the other.”
It was frustrating as an actor to not necessarily be able have input to the whole. I like to make families as well, to bring a company together. Audiences realize subliminally or otherwise that they love seeing a group working together. They often come to stage doors to say, “You all seem to really get on.”
Sometimes that isn’t the case, but a lot of times when it is, you can see actors onstage getting fired [up] one way or another. There is a kind of electricity among them.
What appeals to you most in Lucy Kirkwood’s style as a playwright?
She’s got such a brilliant ear for story and dialogue. I do a lot of play adapting. When I read a play, I’ve always got my little adapter’s hat on as well. If I am directing, I will type the play out for myself and see what bit could do with a tweak.
With this, there’s nothing out of place! She writes incredibly complex and overlapping sentences that are naturalistic in one way, but very dramatic and heightened in another. She can also incorporate drama with a bit of thriller, comedy, and politics.
On Mounting This New Production of The Children
How does it feel to be directing the regional premiere of The Children?
I felt slightly daunted that it’s the first out-of-London production. It feels like an important thing to be doing.
What are some strengths of your cast?
Joanne Pearce is an extraordinary actress who spent years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw her do a lot of incredible performances. I discovered later on that she was a wonderful comedienne. She brings a wealth of experience in all areas and is a very clever, detailed woman.
Christine Kavanagh, I knew years ago when we were in a TV series together. I’ve always admired her and found her a stylish actress with a wonderful delivery and great sense of humor.
Brian [Protheroe], I was a fan of way back when. He did a lot of music shows. He’s got great charisma and a marvelous presence.
The three of them together are fantastic.
What The Children Is All About
I understand the characters are in a crumbling world. What can you tell us about the timeliness of the play?
It’s set in a crumbling world. This couple, retired nuclear engineers, were witnesses to a tsunami. They live on the coast near a nuclear power station that they used to work at. The tsunami floods their home and the power station. There’s an emergency at the power station.
They’ve moved to a cottage along the coast. It happens—and it’s true that this part of the British coast has been falling into the sea for hundreds of years. They are in a perilous part of the world eroded by maybe climate change. We don’t really know the answer.
Although they aren’t in the exclusion zone, they are very close to the power station. The more I learn about nuclear accidents, the more I think that the fallout will reach them in the end.
How does that fit with today’s world?
They are on a frail place of the earth, as are we, although it seems that people are trying to pretend they’re not. People carry on with life as if nothing has happened. One of the biggest lines in the play is “We can’t have everything we want just because we want it.”
That is something we are finding hard to swallow because we’ve been so spoiled … One of the characters says, “You don’t have a right to electricity.” However, we may feel that we do have a right to it. The play asks a lot of questions about the way we live now.
How would you sum up the tone of the play?
It’s a funny play. It’s a funny thing to be funny about. I’ve never known a bad situation that hasn’t had some humor to be found. As human beings, we go to that place because it’s a safety net.
Incorporating Food into the Play’s Action
How were rehearsals?
We’ve been allowed a three-week rehearsal period. These poor actors have had to come in having learnt an incredibly difficult script. A lot of the rehearsals have been “Let’s do these lines. Let’s do those lines.”
There’s been a lot more of what I call “business” than I realized, too. One character spends a lot of time making tea. Then a whole salad has to be made. All these things are supposed to happen.
The dialogue is also nonstop and difficult, so it’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. It’s quite a feat for an actor in a very short space of time. Fortunately, I’m not the one having to do all of it. I can just sit there and say, “No, I think the tomatoes need to go in now.”
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Salisbury Playhouse website.