Nuclear Family

Decisions can be tough to make. Even choices as arbitrary as what to put on in the morning or what to have for lunch can leave us fretful and dithering. Nuclear Family forces life-or-death decisions upon the audience under tight deadlines, and the result is exhilarating and terrifying.

Nuclear Family is the theatrical equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. In it, security guard siblings Joe and Ellen must make a series of increasingly difficult judgment calls as the nuclear power plant they work at goes into meltdown. There’s a catch, however – the audience will be deciding for them. As explained by a framing narrative, we are participating in a study to judge whether or not the decisions made by the characters were understandable, and to perhaps vindicate them for their role in the catastrophe.

For scientific rigorousness, decision time is limited – whenever the play pauses for a choice to be made, the audience has to decide amongst themselves within a few minutes before a Law and Order sound effect forces a final call to be made. This mechanism adds to the atmosphere of urgency and anxiousness that prevails as Joe and Ellen try to avert disaster.

There is also an array of documents, newspaper articles and interview excerpts to rifle through that might influence your decision. Although there is no way to read every word of the material within the time limit, the documents add plenty of emotional depth and backstory; by the end of the performance, we knew far more than could have been worked into the dialogue within an hour. The attention to detail is remarkable and it greatly enriches the play.

Nuclear Family doesn’t rely upon a gimmick for quality, however – actors Eva O’Connor and Simon Chandler could immediately re-immerse the audience into the action, and sensitively revealed the complexity of their characters. The play is both fun for the most incidental of theatre-goers, and thought-provoking for those who want to ruminate on the moral decisions you are forced to make.

The structure of Nuclear Family means that it will not only be a different story at every performance, even the actors won’t know how the story will end until the play is done. And that spontaneity is special. Something that will be consistent from night to night, however, is that you will be left haunted with questions about what would have happened if you chose differently.

Decisions might be hard to make, but this is an easy choice – go see Nuclear Family.

★★★★