Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play Mosquitoes gets its premiere at the National Theatre, with Rufus Norris directing, a Katrina Lindsay set full of bells and whistles and spectacular projections, and most of all the central roles filled by two Future Dame Olivias: Williams plays Alice, a particle physicist working at CERN in the buildup to the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time. Colman is her sister Jenny, the black sheep in a family full of scientists, as she’s superstitious and much more likely to believe any unfounded rumour she reads online than empirically proven facts. In particular, she believed the scare stories about the MMR vaccine causing autism and refused to vaccinate her baby daughter, with tragic results that kick off the story: In need of some support Jenny is visiting her sister in Switzerland, along with their mother Karen (Amanda Boxer.)
It’s an unlikely place to find that support though as the sisters always clash and do so immediately; meanwhile Alice hasn’t realised quite how hard a time her teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn) is having at school, which will soon come to a head.
This isn’t the first recent show to tackle the issue of people who’ve “had enough of experts” and I suspect there’s a lot more to come, and Kirkwood pulls no punches with them – despite being a tragic figure there’s also plenty of moments when we’re abruptly reminded Jenny’s monstrous, aware on one level of her responsibility for her daughter’s death but still responding to it in a destructive way and a stubborn refusal to learn any lesson from it. This is where FDOC – the reason this show sold out pretty much instantly – really comes into her own, creating a very rounded human who we can despise one minute, while the next her famous ability to make you cry when she cries comes into play, or her almost offhand comic timing helps keep things light even in a play that keeps coming round to death and destruction (“That’s a stellar dick!” is a highlight.)
In dealing with “anti-science” there’s a chutzpah in Kirkwood setting her story at CERN, not just a place of outrageously advanced science but also one that typifies the hope inherent in it, billions of dollars spent on a facility to find something that may or may not even exist. Linking the personal story with the bigger picture is Paul Hilton’s narrator figure, enthusiastically describing the likeliest scenarios for the end of the universe. He’s credited as The Boson itself, although he’s hinted to also represent Luke’s missing father, another scientist whose genius tipped over into madness.
Mosquitoes’ ambition is its strength as well as its weakness: At times the amount it takes on is breathtaking but there’s no doubt it also tries to tackle too much, and there’s certain elements that feel like they survived from earlier drafts of the play where they were more prominent, but don’t get explored enough here: There’s the idea that, against expectation, it’s actually the scientifically-minded Alice who’s religious, while the horoscope-reading Jenny isn’t. Alice’s Swiss boyfriend Henri (Yoli Fuller) is more or less forgotten about in the second act. And even with so much else going on I’d expect people to react more to Karen’s tendency to piss herself all over the floor – not least of all Karen herself, whose once brilliant mind seems to be in the very early stages of dementia, certainly not far gone enough that she wouldn’t notice or care.
Norris’ production also succumbs to this tendency to try too hard; Lindsay’s set is a central disk with another, Perspex one suspended over it, lowering and rotating to create effects with Paule Constable’s lighting, Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway’s projections, and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s (who also appears in a small role) movement work. It makes the show visually spectacular at times, but in the same venue where The Curious Incident made its debut it’s sometimes obvious when the intimate family story and the epic science don’t flow together quite as naturally as they did in that show.
The best-realised subplot is the one involving Luke, whose own high intelligence might, like his father’s, prove a hindrance to getting on with everyday life, and whose crush on the only other English student in his school (Sofia Barclay) ends in an embarrassing sexting incident. Kirkwood also keeps the jokes coming, even making a couple of fairly hoary old running gags (Toblerone being the default gift from Duty Free; Switzerland being boring) feel fresh. (“I don’t think anyone actually comes to Switzerland to die; I think they just come on a normal holiday and get worn down” is probably the play’s best line, inimitably delivered by FDOC.)
Not to forget the contribution made by FDOW as the sensible one, who has to bring the basic common sense as well as the academic genius to the relationship between the sisters. The leads are both actors who bring a very quiet kind of fireworks to a role (complementing the much flashier fireworks of the production around them) and who work well together, contrasting their warring characters while also being believable in the moments of tenderness between them. Mosquitoes is a play that runs a bit too long and whose over-ambitious nature I suspect would be more exposed with a lesser cast in place, but somewhat inevitably Colman’s effortlessly engaging presence papers over the cracks.
Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood is booking until the 28th of September at the National Theatre’s Dorfman (returns, rush and day tickets only.)
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.