Olivia Williams and Olivia Colman. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Mosquitoes by Lucy Kirkwood

National Theatre – Dorfman, London SE1

From the title onwards, Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is absorbed with the connection between the insignificant and the cosmic. Mosquitoes, tiny vectors of destruction, are a not-entirely-subtle metaphor for the play’s characters, principally a contrasting pair of sisters. Olivia Williams is serious, intellectual and works on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Olivia Colman is, according to herself and her mother, stupid, hopeless and works in a bar. Already this might seem like enough of a symbolic framework for any play, but Kirkwood has plenty more up her sleeve.

Mosquitoes is very keen to demonstrate that it is a serious play about big subjects. It does this by covering just about every issue of the 2010s, and a few more for good measure. It spends significant time on fake news, the MMR vaccine, phone sex, generational divides, dementia, caring, women in science, the Higgs Boson, the future of the planet, parallel dimensions, hacking, missing persons, and bullying. Additional topics float through the script. The play is so current, it will have dated before the end of its run. No play, even one written by Tom Stoppard, could successfully address such a range, and the result is sometimes infuriating. However, Kirkwood is a talented writer and, despite its gaping flaws, Mosquitoes is an entertaining evening.

The most involving scenes are down to the performers, particularly Colman and Williams, and the dialogue Kirkwood provides. Their relationship is unconvincing on a symbolic level – Colman’s character Jenny is far too funny and sharp to be her sister Alice’s intellectual inferior. However, their tempestuous yet dependent sisterly relationship is entirely convincing and very amusing – the heart of the play. Alice struggles with her unhappy teenage son Luke, while Jenny is blamed and blames herself for the death of her daughter from measles after refusing the MMR vaccine. This scenario is typically over-complicated, but the play comes to life whenever the two share a scene, incessantly winding each other up but mutually protective in the face of external threat.

The play’s other triumph is the character of Karen, their mother, played as an old lady by the definitely younger Amanda Boxer. She is hilarious and infuriating in equal measure, marauding around CERN and both emotionally supporting and destroying her children. Other characters are less successful, with the storyline involving Luke and schoolfriend Natalie, something of a teen soap by numbers. Alice’s vanished husband, played by Paul Hilton, is described as The Boson and has apparently merged into the cosmos, from which he reappears at intervals to conduct physics lectures. These are impressively staged, with the Dorfman experiencing the kind of light show usually reserved for the wider spaces of the Oliver auditorium. However, the use of astrophysics as a metaphor for human affairs feels neither as original nor as exciting as the staging implies. The coda, a dizzying zoom out from the play’s timline, provides wow factor but reduces the clarity even further.

The quality of casting available to the National gives Mosquitoes the best possible presentation, and the combination of Colman, Williams and Boxer is worth an evening of anyone’s time. However, Mosquitoes does not convince as the best playwriting on offer in 2017. At its core, it is a play about the relationship between two sisters and their mother – funny, touching and real. Everything Kirkwood adds to this triangle dilutes the play’s effectiveness, leaving the audience feeling bombarded and unsatisfied. MLess is more.