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Theatre review: Children of the Sun, Lyttelton, NT


Maxim Gorky wrote this play while in prison in 1905 in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, the shameful episode in which the Imperial Guard turned fire on a peaceful, unarmed demonstration in Petersburg.

Many were killed or injured. You may have thought that a play written in incarceration and in the wake of this incident would pullulate with positive images plucked from the heroic struggle against autocracy. But as Howard Davies's rare and brilliantly mordant revival of Children of the Sun indelibly illustrates, Gorky chose to give scathing vent both to his exasperation with the self-involved ineffectuality of Russia's new middle class intelligentsia and to his nagging mistrust of the masses.   

The proceedings unfold in the home of Protasov, a scientist who thinks that the future welfare of mankind lies in chemistry and he has an experiment cooking smokily in the living room as well as in the glassed-in lab that is crammed with retorts and tubing. To my mind, the always excellent Geoffrey Streatfeild has been called on to play Protasov too much as a cranky proto-Ayckbourn-esque geek. It's as if, you occasionally feel here, the Norman of The Norman Conquests had developed a  fixation for alchemy. It would be better and more painful, I think, if you could still see flashes of the charismatic promise he must once have shown.

Davies and his regular designer Bunny Christie once again show their mastery at animating the wide Lyttleton space and Andrew Upton's adaptation, with its calculated anachronisms (“Welcome to the human race..it's horrible in here” declares one character) keeps jolting us out of the complacency of galleried hindsight. 

With wonderfully well-paced and wrong-footing surges of futile energy amidst the nettled enervation, the production excels at orchestrating the bootless passion of Gorky's personnel who here talk across each and tread on each other's lines in the bitter comedy of the doctrinal altercations and misdirected amatory entanglements. 

Emma Lowndes is wonderfully sad and disturbing as the chemist's educated sister, Liza, all clued-up with nowhere to go but out of her mind as a fraught Cassandra figure. Lucy Black is excruciatingly hilarious as Protasov's abject fan, Melaniya, who is prepared to give him anything for the brave new (all too distant) future apart from actually read his books.  And Paul Higgins, in the sardonic music of his Scots tones, exactly captures the note of self-parodic despair in the cynical candour of the local vet.  A richly rewarding evening with a literally explosive climax.

To 14 July: 0207 452 3000