'Mosquitoes': Theater Review

Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Olivia Colman in 'Mosquitoes'
Billions of quantums, not much solace.
9/26/2017

Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams star in 'Chimerica' writer Lucy Kirkwood's tragicomic family drama about squabbling siblings and particle physics.

The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva serves as both literal and metaphorical backdrop to tragicomic family fireworks in Mosquitoes, the new play by Chimerica writer Lucy Kirkwood. Director Rufus Norris' world-premiere in-the-round production is essentially a tale of two Olivias, Colman and Williams, playing sisters who have long been at odds intellectually and emotionally. This dysfunctional sibling saga has been gestating for almost a decade, and grew out of an earlier commission for the Manhattan Theater Club in New York, which will host the U.S. launch of Kirkwood's transatlantic transfer, The Children, in November.

This long evolution period may be significant, because Mosquitoes is something of an overcooked muddle. The performances are world-class, the jokes plentiful and the character observation novelistically rich, but Kirkwood swamps the main dramatic thread with too many subplots and tangents, notably some half-digested musings on particle physics. Stretching beyond two and a half hours, this two-act production feels baggy and unfocused. That said, it is also very funny, and Colman's growing profile as a much-loved national treasure in Britain has undoubtedly helped to sell out the entire two-month run. Day-release tickets are still available in limited numbers.

Jenny (Colman) is the black sheep of her brainy family, a chain-smoking underachiever whose stubborn attachment to horoscopes and junk-science conspiracy theories feels like a subliminal rebellion against her much smarter sister Alice (Williams), a particle physicist based at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. The volatile chemistry between the two siblings seems to stem at least partly from their elderly mother Karen (Amanda Boxer), a former physics genius who missed out on big prizes because of her gender. Karen is edging into dementia, but still enjoys reminding her cowed daughters of her intellectual superiority.

A love-hate relationship with science can be lethal, as Jenny discovers when her gullible embrace of anti-vaxxer propaganda leads to personal tragedy. Wracked with guilt and shame, she turns to Alice for solace just as the LHC is about to go online.

Meanwhile, Alice's petulant, angsty teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn) is having an existential crisis of his own after a tentative flirtation with fellow high-schooler Natalie (Sofia Barclay) sours into vengeful violence and online bullying. Luke takes after his father, a suicidally depressed, mentally fragile physicist who walked out on Alice many years ago. History appears to repeat itself when the anguished teen also disappears, plunging his mother into despair and gifting Jenny with a rare chance to play the stronger sibling role.

The 10-strong ensemble cast of Mosquitoes is uniformly excellent, but Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) inevitably earns more sympathetic focus as the anti-heroic loser whose needy nature conceals a wise, self-sacrificing heart. Williams also deserves credit for making the brittle, prickly Alice deeper and warmer than the soulless careerist caricature she might have been. And Quinn does a finely tuned comic impression of a teen tyrant who is both bully and victim, his stuttering speech choked with pubescent awkwardness and social media slang.

The play's title is a somewhat strained metaphor for the infinitesimally small particles that hurtle around the LHC, subatomic specks that could potentially trigger catastrophic consequences on an intergalactic scale. But this meshing of the domestic and the cosmic never really works convincingly. A lab-coated chorus character called The Boson (Paul Hilton), who seems to be a kind of avatar for Alice's missing husband, pops up sporadically with brief lectures on particle physics and the inevitable death of the universe, using the giant tilting saucers of Katrina Lindsay's visually striking stage design as display screens. These interludes feel like TED talks with Las Vegas-level production values, but their thematic relevance to the drama is tenuous. Mosquitoes would arguably work better without its largely superfluous pop-science trimmings.

Kirkwood stuffs Mosquitoes with character-rich comedy, from moments of broad slapstick to darkly funny dissections of the passive-aggressive power struggles between siblings. Verbal sparring is her forté, and Boxer gets some of the most uproarious lines as a haughty, horny senior citizen who refuses to go gently into that good night: "I've always had a healthy interest in intercourse," she boasts. There is also onstage vomiting, incontinence, spanking and a semi-nude sexting scene. All amusing enough, but the cumulative sense is of Norris and Kirkwood overplaying the gimmicky party tricks to spice up what is, at heart, a conventional family farce. Good fun, most of the time, but not rocket science.

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Joseph Quinn, Amanda Boxer, Sofia Barclay, Yoli Fuller, Paul Quinn, Vanessa Emme, Cait Davis
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Rufus Norris
Set & costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Music: Adam Cork
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Video designers: Finn Ross, Ian William Galloway
Movement: Ira Mandela Siobhan
Fight director: Kev McCurdy
Presented by National Theatre, by special arrangement with Manhattan Theater Club

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