Review: Mosquitoes (Dorfman, National Theatre)

Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams star as two sisters who are worlds apart in Lucy Kirkwood’s new play

This is the kind of play that makes me want to punch the air in celebration – it exudes as much energy as the protons pinging around the Large Hadron Collider, which is one of its settings, and one of its subjects.

But playwright Lucy Kirkwood‘s real triumph here is to combine the thoughtful enquiry and large themes that marked her previous hit, the award-winning Chimerica, with a portrait of a dysfunctional family that exerts its own gravitational pull. The result is emotionally involving as well as intellectually satisfying.

The set-up is relatively simple. Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams are sisters, Jenny and Alice. Alice is a particle physicist; Jenny is emotional and credulous. The first scene hints both at the difficulties of their relationship and of their different viewpoints; where Alice is rational and scientific, Jenny, who is pregnant with a much-longed for child, trawls the internet, trusting every rumour she reads. "It doesn’t matter whether you believe it, it’s a fact," snaps Alice. "Says who?" responds Jenny.

But then, in a moment of theatrical magic, Katrina Lindsay‘s simple circular set, with a huge metal portal looming above it, is transformed by light (courtesy of Paule Constable) and we are off and running in a dizzying exploration of the way in which chaos and order, stability and instability affect not only the workings of the universe but also the lives of every individual. Nothing is simple; everything is in flux.

Jenny’s inability to distinguish an expert opinion from an unproved theory leads her to make a terrible, life-destroying mistake. Alice, chasing the origin of life itself as part of CERN’s team searching for the elusive Higgs Boson particle is unable to understand the roots of her son Luke’s unhappiness and disaffection.

Kirkwood flings everything into her creative mix. There’s an unrelenting mother (brusque Amanda Boxer) who should have won the Nobel Prize if only her husband hadn’t taken the credit, and an occasional narrator called The Boson (Paul Hilton) who explains the ways in which the universe can end – but who is also Alice’s long-lost husband who went mad under the pressure of thinking about such things. We see the moment the Large Hadron Collider is switched on, and understand how badly science is understood and reported – but we also experience the confusion of a teenage boy who is the victim of sexting.

Her themes encompass faith and doubt, the responsibilities and challenges of knowledge and the nature of fear and its effects. In the course of nearly three hours, she examines different visions of Armageddon in tones that range from profoundly funny to deeply moving. But she never loses her essential hold on the idea that ties the entire play together – the way a family can be a mirror of the universe itself, a child’s conception as important and devastating as the big bang. As the mother says: "Everyone thinks love is the greatest force in the cosmos and it isn’t you know… It’s just something we invented to help us survive chaos."

Because she understands families so well, she creates one that is believable, and Williams and Colman are entirely convincing as the squabbling sisters. Both are wonderful, capturing the shifting emotions of characters who are not necessarily likeable, but are always understandable. So is Joseph Quinn, as the unhappy Luke, not just a regulation bolshie teen, but a boy whose cleverness is part of his undoing.

Rufus Norris directs with sensitivity and real panache; the play’s constantly changing landscape (helped by impressive videos from Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway) opens up whole worlds without ever losing its still centre or its capacity to hold the attention for every moment.

What I really love about it, is its refusal to simplify. The currents of thought and feeling it sets running never settle into easy patterns. It keeps its nerve and its complexity; even its conclusion is hard won. Rather like science itself, it raises as many questions as it answers, allowing for anomalies and complications. It’s terrific.

Mosquitoes runs in the Dorfman, National Theatre until 28 September 2017. Tickets are available through day seats and the NT's Friday Rush.