Mosquitoes review: Olivia Colman is very funny and utterly tragic ★★★★

Olivia Williams also stars in the National's gripping new play about a physicist and her headstrong sister who distrusts experts

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Olivia Colman is one of our finest TV actors, but viewers rarely get to see her exercise her funny bone and serious side at the same time. That’s just one of the many brilliant things about this new play by Lucy Kirkwood.

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Kirkwood is one of British theatre’s brightest rising stars and doesn’t shy away from complex and unsexy subjects. This is her second play about female scientists while her biggest hit to date, Chimerica, was about the relationship between the US and China.

Mosquitoes is topical: it’s about the gap between what the experts say and popular opinion. Olivia Williams (Lady Hamilton in ITV’s The Halcyon) plays Alice, a successful physicist who works at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. Colman plays her sister Jenny, who distrusts experts and believes every medical scare story she reads on the internet.

In the opening scenes, Jenny’s gullibility has tragic consequences and she flies to Geneva for an impromptu holiday with her mother (Amanda Boxer), a retired scientist who missed out on the Nobel Prize because their father took the credit.

They happen to arrive on the day the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is due to be switched on. (There’s no need to brush up on your particle physics before; Kirkwood does a good job of practising what she preaches and communicating the science.) It’s the high point of Alice’s career, but her home life is descending into chaos: Jenny tries it on with her hunky Swiss boyfriend and her teenage son goes missing.

At its heart this is a play about a dysfunctional family, but Kirkwood also chucks in cosmic theories via a sinister ghost – Alice’s missing husband stalks around the stage, lecturing the audience about the end of the world. Katrina Lindsay’s deceptively simple set transforms into Cern and then transports the audience to outer space with the help of Paule Constable’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s atmospheric sound.

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Paul Hilton as Alice’s missing husband (photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg)

From the start, Mosquitoes is an emotional rollercoaster and very funny. Kirkwood’s trademark rhythm and wit ensures the dialogue dances along in even the more fraught scenes. Colman’s comic timing is impeccable; in the middle of the bleakest monologue, she can land a one-liner. The scenes between Alice’s son (Joseph Quinn) and his would-be girlfriend are hilarious.

All the performances are outstanding. In less accomplished hands, Jenny could be merely foolish and pitiable; Colman manages to redeem her. Williams is equally superb as Alice who’s torn between frustration and wanting to do the right thing by her family. Young Quinn nails the stroppy, inarticulate, insecure teenager.

Mosquitoes is a treat: an ambitious play that deals in big ideas and knotty themes, but is also a heart-wrenching portrait of a family in crisis. Plus, it’s a rare chance to see the superlative Olivia Colman on stage.

Mosquitoes is at the National Theatre until 28 September


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