Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre
25 July 2017
There are a lot of metaphors in Mosquitoes, the new play from Lucy Kirkwood. After taking on Chinese culture and politics in her phenomenal Chimerica, she is now using the context of particle physics for telling us the story of a family tormented with loss. Alice is a physicist at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Switzerland, trying to bring up her clever but emotionally troubled 17-year-old son by herself after her husband suddenly disappeared nine years earlier after a mental breakdown. They are joined by Alice’s free-spirited sister Jenny, who is dealing with her own problems, along with their mother, Karen, a brilliant physicist facing the challenges of growing old.
This is all interspersed with particle physics for dummies, enhanced by incredible visual effects, which – like the alternate chapters on the science of whales in Moby Dick – provide constant reflections on the characters and their stories. We learn a bit about particle decay alongside learning about Karen’s distress at the decay of her body and mind as she gets older. The two sisters and their son all have to face up to responsibility for their actions in the same way as scientists have to grapple with the impact of their discoveries, however far removed. A discourse on the challenge of communicating science to non-scientists very aptly reflects the difficulties the characters have in communicating their personal feelings to each other.
The backdrop to the story is an experiment at the Large Hadron Collider which will study the effects of two protons colliding – a neat metaphor for the two very different sisters coming together. One is a scientist who practises Quakerism while the other is a superstitious anti-vaxxer and atheist who believes that “what I feel is stronger than a fact”. This experiment also explains the title which relates to how two protons collide with as little sound and spectacle as two tiny mosquitoes.
All these ideas are tossed liberally around throughout the play but feel foisted on the drama without much subtlety. But this does not stop it being very entertaining, not least because of a plethora of funny lines being fired out like, well, protons. Most of all, it comes to life thanks to the superb lead performances, most notably Olivia Colman as Jenny – a mess of emotion trying to find her way forward after dealing with a heart-breaking loss that she feels responsible for. Olivia Williams is also powerful as her sister, coping with both a son and a sister who she cannot understand, while Amanda Boxer is sharply amusing and touching as Karen who has never forgiven the scientific community for overlooking her ground-breaking discoveries because she is a woman. Joseph Quinn as Alice’s son, Luke, captures the anxieties of being a teenager, making us both laugh at his overwrought antics but also feel the pain of his own loss.
Paul Hilton is engaging as the scientist lecturing us on physics, supported by inventive effects by lighting designer Paule Constable and video designers Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway alongside a spine-tingling soundscape devised by Paul Arditti. With set design by Katrina Lindsay, it all takes place underneath a giant round transparent oculus that appears to be peering down on them as if studying them under a microscope. Slickly directed by Rufus Norris, Mosquitoes entertains and enlightens although, if I may use one of its metaphors, it lacks bite.
Running to September 28, 2017