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Downstate review at National Theatre, London – ‘Bruce’s Norris’ harrowing but cynical new play’

Cecilia Noble, Eddie Torres and K Todd Freeman in Downstate at National Theatre, London. Photo: Michael Brosilow
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The new play by Pulitzer-winner and liberal-bubble-busting Bruce Norris asks: what should we do with paedophiles? Incarcerate, rehabilitate, or pity them? Care for them or kill them?

Set in a group home for registered sex offenders, there is barely a moment in Downstate that is not hideously, gut-twistingly gripping. It is mostly very well written, extraordinarily well acted and skilfully directed by Pam MacKinnon, who paints a pall over the whole production of sick, stale sadness. And yet some moments feel intolerably grim for the sake of it.

Part of the problem is that the play’s salience is lessened in the UK (it was co-commissioned by the National and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Sex offender registers aren’t publicly available here, capital punishment doesn’t exist, and there’s a huge and hopefully far-reaching inquiry into child sexual abuse ongoing.

That’s not to say it isn’t relevant. Just look at the reaction to the Michael Jackson documentary. Norris tries to unpick this by asking his audience to consider, for example, the differences in a ‘consensual’ relationship between a 37-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy, and the rape of a 12-year-old by his piano teacher.

These men have ankle tags, aren’t allowed to use the internet, aren’t allowed near schools, parks, shops for the rest of their lives. What’s under scrutiny is the line where justice becomes wanton revenge. Norris has mastery over the degree to which we sympathise with these characters. One minute Fred the aged, wheelchair-using, arthritic piano teacher is just a sweet old man; the next he is subtly trying to refocus the victimhood on to himself, even as he faces the guy he abused. Similarly, K Todd Freeman’s slithering Dee is like two characters squished into one: sometimes kind, sometimes unbelievably cruel.

Cecilia Noble is an important centre of the play as Ivy, the police officer in charge of checking up on the offenders. Noble plays her as slow and weary, discommoded at having to do a pretty horrible job, but forceful when she needs to be. She’s patient, but visibly reaching the end of her tether.

Eddie Torres’ Felix, silent and pent-up, is memorable too, clutching his Bible in utter desperation. And watching Tim Hopper’s Andy recounting what his piano teacher did to him is utterly unbearable.

No one is beyond sympathy here, but nor is anyone beyond the reach of Norris’ cynicism and capacity for dramatic cruelty. He gets us to like and to loathe everyone equally.

But he can’t resist comedy, and those moments feel too contrived, and land really hard in such a charged atmosphere. Plus, for all the really finely wrought dialogue, there are clunky scenes too, like the bloated character-building of the second half, which goes nowhere.

Downstate has important points to make, and the quality of the production is undeniable. But does it do enough to justify its graphic descriptions of child rape, its violence, its comedy? It feels too sneering to say, ‘definitively, yes’.

Actor Cecilia Noble: ‘Preparation is everything because then you can fly’

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Bruce Norris’ harrowing play about child abuse features some superb performances but also sometimes feels cynical