Writer: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN’s Switzerland, two particles flung in opposite directions around the underground toroid structure will reunite and collide. Although the force involved may be little more than that of two mosquitoes flying into each other, muses Lucy Kirkwood’s dazzling new play, the repercussions are huge – from finding a deeper understanding of the universe to the teeny, tiny chance of destroying it.
The metaphor between the physics and the play’s central characters, warring sisters Alice (Olivia Williams) and Jenny (Olivia Colman) is obvious without being heavy handed. The siblings are diametrically opposed in many ways: Alice is a physicist at the LHC, while her sister distrusts any science that can be mischaracterised with a scare story on the internet; Alice has her Quaker faith to fall back upon, while the profane Jenny could do with the self-confidence her sister finds in God.
Played in the round, Williams and Colman constantly circle one another, verbally and, on occasion, physically. Rationality versus emotionality battle in their relationship and those with their other family members, from Amanda Boxer’s imperious mother, whose record as a rare female role model to Alice’s CERN colleagues is now threatened by encroaching dementia, to Joseph Quinn as Alice’s nervy, troubled teenage son Luke, living in the shadow of his absent father’s mental illness.
Set in 2008 at the opening of the Collider, the event Kirkwood’s script touches upon most is the (now debunked and retracted) publication by Andrew Wakefield suggesting the MMR vaccine was unsafe. The effects of Jenny’s belief in this scare story resonate, creating a black hole at the heart of the family which threatens to engulf everything around it.
Williams brings a stiff, analytical air to scientist Alice, a woman who has seemingly inherited her mother’s haughtiness and who struggles to provide the warmth her son needs. She is the perfect foil to Colman’s Jenny, a force of nature who is seemingly intent on destroying anything, anyone, everyone en route to destroying herself. Traditionally more comfortable on film and television, Colman is utterly at home here, her trademark ability to be heartbreakingly sad and side-splittingly funny within the same breath the perfect embodiment of the dualities within Jenny’s personality.
The parallels with particle physics are solidified by scenes presented by scruffy scientist Paul Hilton, who explains concepts including the potential ways the universe could end in terms that are as lyrical as they are unscientific. Such scenes work most effectively due to fine audio-visual work (the achievement of a team led by lighting designer Paule Constable and sound designer Paul Arditti). Never acknowledged by name on stage, in the programme Hilton’s character is acknowledged as “Boson” – a cheeky reference to the Higgs Boson particle which the LHC was constructed to detect. A particle whose presence gives everything else mass, which is surmised to exist because without it the model would mathematically collapse. Not for nothing is it implied that Boson is also Luke’s father.
And that is the secret to how Kirkwood’s play; ostensibly about particle physics, it segues from the theoretical concepts of quantum theory to the practical experiment of family with ease. At a shade under three hours, it is both packed with ideas and full of enough breathing space to let them roam. But most of all, it has two of British theatre’s most vibrant performances. Colman and Williams bounce off each other with such energy that, if their collisions were to create a black hole and consume everything in sight, one would at least be happy to have been there to be part of it.
Runs until 28 September 2017 | Image: Alastair Muir