The Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle”, has no mass but it and its sub-atomic cousins contribute much to the weightiness of Lucy Kirkwood’s story of divergent siblings.
Mosquitoes is set in 2008 in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most complex machine and a useful metaphor for the mysteries of existence in secular times.
Sisters Alice and Jenny occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.
Alice (played by Jacqueline McKenzie) is an experimental physicist working at CERN on the start-up of the LHC – an event some speculate might result in the creation of an Earth-swallowing black hole. Media crews are on hand, just in case.
Away from CERN, however, life isn’t playing by the rules. Alice’s son Luke (Charles Wu) is struggling at an exclusive school. Directionless and a loner (like his absent physicist father, apparently), he despises his peers and feels ignored by his mother.
Then there’s Alice’s younger sister Jenny (Mandy McElhinney), who lives a very ordinary life in dreary Luton, north of London, and is pregnant with her first IVF baby.
In Kirkwood’s opening scene, the sisters collide over Jenny’s refusal of a late pregnancy ultrasound. She read something on the Internet about it.
Later, we learn that the child died because Jenny went to Dr Google and came back an anti-vaxxer.
The tragedy serves to reinforce each sister’s view of the other and the point of the play. We see in Jenny’s militant refusal to accept facts the wider state of affairs in a post-truth world.
At the same time, Alice’s patronising treatment of Jenny reveals a profound intolerance for human foibles and a tendency to demonise ignorance. Kirkwood is suggesting, perhaps, that science needs to sell its messages better and be wary of institutional elitism.
Directed by Jessica Arthur, Mosquitoes is a spacious and spare production that tends to keep the drama at arm’s length. Everything takes place behind a heavy slot-like frame (an Elizabeth Gadsby design), the actors are miked and much of the action takes place far upstage.
It feels like a good place to explore the physics of relationships but it’s a difficult environment for cooking up chemistry. This the first time I’ve found myself yearning for the old Wharf 1.
For me, McElhinney’s raw, ragged and occasionally wise Jenny is the show’s saving grace. A scene in which she tries to drunkenly seduce Alice’s boyfriend Henri (Louis Seguier in his STC debut) strikes a perfect balance of desperation, anger and vulnerability.
McKenzie’s Alice appears two-dimensional and colourless by comparison, though that’s largely to do with Kirkwood writing her that way.
Annie Byron has some fine moments as Karen, Alice and Jenny’s mother, once a scientist of note but now facing cognitive and continence issues.
Jason Chong, playing a character named Boson, delivers two dazzling if somewhat superfluous speeches.
Wu and Nikita Waldron (another STC debutant) are effective as Luke and his sympathetic-seeming not-quite-girlfriend Natalie. The trap she lures him into had the audience both gripped and incredulous.
Many will be lured to Mosquitoes by their experience of Kirkwood’s The Children, which played in this theatre in 2017. That play, I’d argue, is a much better one than this, and so was that production. The invisible force that binds ideas and emotions together doesn’t seem anywhere near as strong.