Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
Lucy Kirkwood’s new play Mosquitoes is such a sparkling showcase for physics that it might as well have been commissioned by CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory. But this tragicomedy is most successful in its portrayal of heartbreak, trust and the tug of family ties.
The science begins with the play’s name, a reference to a phenomenon at the heart of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC): that incredible things emerge when particles collide with the force of just two mosquitoes. The action takes place during the LHC’s startup in 2008. Women scientists from two generations feature — condensed-matter physicist Karen (Amanda Boxer) and her daughter, particle physicist Alice (Olivia Williams). There is even a humanised boson called, naturally, The Boson. Played by Paul Hilton, the personified particle segues into grand monologues about the creation and demise of the Universe, set to spectacles of light and sound in Rufus Norris’s slick, minimalist production. (The ghostly character doubles up as Alice’s missing husband, who is as elusive as the long-searched-for Higgs.) But it is the very human story enacted by Williams and Olivia Colman, as Alice’s disgruntled, underachieving sister Jenny, that completely steals the show.
A tragedy prompts Jenny and their mother Karen, who is coping with the early stages of dementia, to visit Alice just as she is about to embark on the most exciting years of her career at the LHC. During their stay, Alice’s orderly life is jolted by events unfolding around her guests and her socially awkward teenage son Luke (Joseph Quinn). Each faces a personal issue — guilt, loss of control, work or teenage angst — that can stop them from seeing the bigger picture.
Colman is electric as Jenny. Witheringly witty, she’s also boozy and reckless, a fan of horoscopes and holidays “somewhere hot that serves English food”. Williams has less to work with but is excellent as even-tempered Alice, who struggles to understand her son and gently patronises her frequently deluded sister. Their relationship is very believable, not least in drawing on each other’s diverse qualities at times of need; it steadies the whirlwind of ideas Kirkwood plays with, from mental health to cosmology. The pacy dialogue meanwhile zings with humour.
Science here is most successful as a backdrop. The play perfectly captures the fervid atmosphere of the LHC’s switch-on day, with physicists jumping for joy at screens that seem, to an outsider, to show nothing. Boxer is effervescent as Karen, describing the highs and lows of her scientific work – for which, she often reminds her daughters, she should have won a Nobel. (Kirkwood also neatly skewers journalists who sought to ham up the possibility of the LHC causing Earth to be sucked into a black hole.) Jenny meanwhile becomes an anti-science mouthpiece, at one point masterfully comparing the quest for the Higgs boson to complete the Standard Model to the claim “my marriage isn’t working because we don’t have a cappuccino machine”. Her views are generally so ludicrous that such comments come off as praise.
The science setpieces are eerie and gripping — notably The Boson’s description of the Universe’s first 300,000 years as a real “pea-souper” while twinkling visuals appear on a screen above. But the relevance of these moments to the rest isn’t entirely clear. Are they meant to highlight the importance of Alice’s work? Are they a counterweight to the minutiae of human stories?
A more successful theme is the link between power and trust. Though the play celebrates the triumph of reason over pseudoscience, it also subtly makes the point that scientific pronouncements are taken on trust by everyone except those who directly work on them. Mosquitoes equates science with power, and shows that working in the two sisters. Jenny feels left behind by her scientific family, and that relates to her reactionary attitude and mistrust of doctors who tell her that vaccines and ultrasounds are safe. Meanwhile, the harder Alice’s life gets, the more she leans on superstition, faith and the blind acceptance of family.
Kirkwood’s decision to intertwine this intense relationship and each character’s personal struggles with a barrage of science makes for a slightly disjointed but profoundly emotional, immersive and compelling experience. I was irked only by the fact that the play does little to dispel the myth that science is only for the select few. (In a great comic line, Luke’s would-be girlfriend earnestly proclaims that, as she’s not clever enough to become a scientist, she’ll probably just be a doctor or lawyer. It’s a joke that’s close to the bone.) The audience is unlikely to leave Mosquitoes with a radically better understanding of cosmic mysteries, but they will be stung by its insights into the power of family relationships long after the curtains close.
Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter on physics for Nature based in London. She tweets at @LizzieGibney.
Mosquitoes is on at the National Theatre, London, until 28 September.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.