LONDON — The gently angled set from the designer Miriam Buether is not the only thing that is askew in Lucy Kirkwood’s richly disturbing new play, “The Children,” now on the main stage of the Royal Court Theater through Jan. 14.
From our initial glimpse of the ever-ravishing Francesca Annis, as Rose, nursing a bloody nose through to a startling finish that may make playgoers feel as if they have been inside a blender, Ms. Kirkwood almost matter of factly suggests a gathering apocalypse that is unsparing in its reach.
Not that the playwright stints on the quotidian details. Barely has Rose arrived unannounced in the rustic kitchen belonging to her long-ago friends Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and her husband, Robin (Ron Cook), before talk of banana bread and chocolate flake — the latter a popular English sweet — jostles up against mention of explosions and “the disaster.”
An earthquake, we soon learn, has prompted a nearby nuclear accident that puts one in mind of events in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. And as one of three physicists reunited in their twilight years (Rose hasn’t seen Robin or Hazel for over three decades), Rose is on a mission to get her generation to help with the nuclear cleanup, not least so as to allow a habitable country for the children that she does not have — though Hazel and Robin in fact have four.
Deftly interweaving the political with the personal, Ms. Kirkwood introduces an added rationale for Rose’s behavior that is best left unrevealed. Suffice it to say that the playwright is working on a deliberately more constricted — and decidedly more English — canvas than she did in “Chimerica,” the sprawling 2013 play spiraling out from events in Tiananmen Square that won her an Olivier Award the following year; she has yet another play, “Mosquitoes,” set to open at the National Theater next year.
On one level, “The Children” makes for a more linear companion piece to Caryl Churchill’s jagged, and brilliant, Royal Court entry “Escaped Alone,” which returns to this address early next year before traveling to New York. The connection is heightened by the presence in both plays of the invaluable Ms. Findlay, whose Hazel possesses a spikiness that can be dryly funny one minute, alarming the next. (The woman is a mover, as well, at one point leading the trio in an impromptu dance to the music of James Brown.)
Both plays, too, have been directed by James Macdonald, who remains one of the best directors going when it comes to navigating scripts that like to catch their audience off guard.
But Ms. Kirkwood at the same time remains her own woman, the writing encompassing such mundane matters as lavatorial habits alongside the dread accompanying a spike in radiation that simply cannot be ignored by three people who find themselves on the outside of an exclusion zone.
One thinks, too, of the bequest of climate change left unchecked in a climactic watery tableau that threatens to swallow all three characters whole. (Nor should one underestimate the lighting designer Peter Mumford’s contribution to the production’s essay in liquefaction.)
“I have my routine,” the wholly determined Hazel announces toward the end, which in the final analysis may be all we have — action is required today, the play implies, if we are to see tomorrow.
A passing interest in flatulence, of all unlikely topics, links “The Children” to the concomitant work playing in the Royal Court’s studio-sized upstairs space. Like its downstairs neighbor, E. V. Crowe’s “The Sewing Group,” running through Dec. 23, traffics in a capacity to surprise, even if the games-playing on view here irritates rather more than it intrigues.
A puzzle play whose denouement absolutely cannot be revealed in the interests of preserving the integrity of the whole, “The Sewing Group” begins with the mostly silent, concentrated activity suggested in the title. And it ends very much somewhere else.
The laborious artiness of the short, self-consciously cryptic scenes that make up large swaths of the play start to chafe pretty early on — the stage direction “they sew” plainly valuing activity over speech. The play’s two male characters are both played by the excellent John Mackay: that one of them is known simply as F tips you off to the deliberately gnomic landscape on view.
What you make of an ending that casts what has come before in an entirely fresh light may depend on your ability to justify a tricksy dramatic conceit that, in my view, doesn’t pay off. Nor is it any help that the production from the director-designer Stewart Laing backs leading player Fiona Glascott into defiantly strident mode: this is one quilting bee that I was happy, sorry to say, to let be.
By contrast, west London’s Orange Tree Theater catches every narrative twist of the rarely seen Somerset Maugham play from 1933, “Sheppey,” which opened Monday night, just in time to qualify as one of the year’s best theatrical reclamations. The director Paul Miller’s expert production runs through Jan. 7.
A rare play about a barber, “Sheppey” is in some ways the exact antithesis to “Sweeney Todd,” that murderously minded Sondheim musical that follows its own follicular path. The main character here is a sweet-natured hairdresser, Joseph Miller, who goes by Sheppey because he was born on the island of that name off the coast of Kent. Gifted not just with a razor but also with a beatific spirit, Sheppey finds his life transformed when he wins a sizable sum in the Irish lottery, thereby granting him the ability to transform the lives of others.
Across three acts and nearly as many hours, Maugham anatomizes a cross-section of attitudes toward charity and the socially conscious, ranging from John Ramm’s beaming portrayal of Sheppey to the same character’s daughter (Katie Moore) and would-be son-in-law, a budding politician who lives by the Darwinian credo, “get on or get under.” The newcomer Josh Dylan, all smooth-cheeked callousness, makes a terrific impression in that role.
Along the way, we get maxims aplenty (“The devil take the hindmost, I say.”) and a quietly potent parable for its time that sets Sheppey’s insistence on human charity against the more rapacious corridors of thought at large right now. To live is one thing, but to live kindly, “Sheppey” eloquently suggests, is something else altogether.